Noting that "Growing evidence shows that moderate physical activity (PA) can improve psychological health through enhancement of neurotransmitter systems," and "PA may play a physiological role similar to stimulant medications by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters, thereby alleviating the symptoms of ADHD," a Chinese team of researchers performed a comprehensive search of the peer-reviewed journal literature for studies exploring the effects of physical activity on ADHD symptoms.
They found nine before-after studies with a total of 232 participants, and fourteen two-group control studies with a total of 303 participants, that met the criteria for meta-analysis.
The meta-analysis of before-after studies found moderate reductions in inattention and moderate-to-strong reductions in hyperactivity/impulsivity. It also reported moderate reductions in emotional problems and small-to-moderate reductions in behavioral problems.
The effect was even stronger among unmediated participants. There was a very strong reduction in inattention and a strong reduction in hyperactivity/impulsivity.
The meta-analysis of two-group control studies found strong reductions in inattention, but no effect on hyperactivity/impulsivity. It also found no significant effect on emotional and behavioral problems.
There was no sign of publication bias in any of the meta-analyses.
The authors concluded, "Our results suggest that PA intervention could improve ADHD-related symptoms, especially inattention symptoms. However, due to a lot of confounders, such as age, gender, ADHD subtypes, the lack of rigorous double-blinded randomized-control studies, and the inconsistency of the PA program, our results still need to be interpreted with caution."
ADHD patients may substantially improve executive functions through persistent and protracted physical exercise.
Executive function(EF) is associated with the prefrontal cortex. It includes three core components: inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Inhibitory control is the ability to avoid distractions, inhibit or control impulsive responses, and change to more thoughtful responses. Cognitive flexibility involves switching mental tasks or strategies, seeing problems from multiple perspectives, and identifying different ways of solving them. Working memory involves holding information in the mind ready for an ongoing processing.
Persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD, are known to have EF deficits relative to their normally-developing counterparts.
An international research team conducted a comprehensive search of the peer-reviewed medical literature to identify studies that have explored how physical activity affects those deficits in persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically ADHD.
They identified 34 studies with 1,058 participants, of which 13 with 400 looked specifically at ADHD. There was substantial geographic diversity in the ADHD studies, spanning the globe: the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, South Korea, Iran, Israel, and Tunisia.
Among the ADHD studies, a meta-analysis found physical activity improved executive functions overall, with a large effect size. More specifically, it included twelve tests of inhibitory control, four for working memory, three for cognitive flexibility, and one each for switching and planning (there was often more than one tester in the study).
There was no sign of publication bias. There was, however, substantial heterogeneity between studies. A further breakdown indicated substantial divergence by type of physical activity, with a large effect size for sports, medium effect sizes for aerobic exercise and motor skills training, and small effect size for exergaming (video games that are also a form of exercise).
Session time also made a big difference. Sessions at least an hour long had large effect sizes, those between 45 minutes and an hour had medium effect sizes, and shorter sessions had smaller effect sizes.
Improvements in inhibitory control had large effect sizes, those in cognitive flexibility had medium-to-large effect sizes, and those in working memory had small-to-medium effect sizes. All of which suggest ADHD patients can substantially improve executive functions through persistent and protracted physical exercise.
A team of Spanish researchers has published a systematic review of 16 studies with a total of 728 participants exploring the effects of physical exercise on children and adolescents with ADHD. Fourteen studies were judged to be of high quality, and two of medium quality.
Seven studies looked at the acute effects of exercise on eight to twelve-year-old youths with ADHD. Acute means that the effects were measured immediately after periods of exercise lasting up to 30 minutes. Five studies used treadmills and two used stationary bicycles, for periods of five to 30 minutes. Three studies "showed a significant increase in the speed of reaction and precision of response after an intervention of 20-30 min, but at moderate intensity (50-75%)." Another study, however, found no improvement in mathematical problem-solving after 25 minutes using a stationary bicycle at low (40-50%) or moderate intensity (65-75%). The three others found improvements in executive functioning, planning, and organization in children after 20- to 30-minute exercise sessions.
Nine studies examined longer-term effects, following regular exercise over many weeks. One reported that twenty consecutive weekly yoga sessions improved attention. Another found that moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) led to improved behavior beginning in the third week, and improved motor, emotional and attentional control, by the end of five weeks. A third study reported that eight weeks of starting the school day with 30 minutes of physical activity led to improvement in Connor's ADHD scores, oppositional scores, and response inhibition. Another study found that twelve weeks of aerobic activity led to declines in bad mood and inattention. Yet another reported that thrice-weekly 45-minute sessions of MVPA over ten weeks improved not only muscle strength and motor skills, but also attention, response inhibition, and information processing.
Two seventy-minute table tennis per week over twelve weeks improved executive functioning and planning, in addition to locomotor and object control skills.
Two studies found a significant increase in brain activity. One involved two hour-long sessions of rowing per week for eight weeks, the other three 90-minute land-based sessions per week for six weeks. Both studies measured higher activation of the right frontal and right temporal lobes in children, and lower theta/alpha ratios in male adolescents.
All 16 studies found positive effects on cognition. Five of the nine longer-term studies found positive effects on behavior. No study found any negative effects. The authors of the review concluded that physical activity "improves executive functions, increases attention, contributes to greater planning capacity and processing speed and working memory, improves the behavior of students with ADHD in the learning context, and consequently improves academic performance." Although the data are limited by a lack of appropriate controls, they suggest that, in addition to the well-known positive effects of physical activity, one may expect to see improvements in ADHD symptoms and associated features, especially for periods of sustained exercise.
Animal studies clearly show that physical exercise helps with brain development and improves behaviors known to be impaired in ADHD people. Some studies on humans are consistent with this, but the data are weaker. Studies using exercise to treat ADHD suggest that moderate to vigorous physical activity improves behavior and cognition in ADHD people. This work was recently summarized in a meta-analysis by Vysniauske and colleagues