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For those with ADHD, exercise can aid schooling

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 20, 2020

Children wearing face shields as a precaution against the coronavirus take part in a "leap frog" race during a performance held as a part of a celebration of the country's 75th anniversary of independence in Tangerang, Indonesia, on Monday, Aug. 17.  (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)
Children wearing face shields as a precaution against the coronavirus take part in a "leap frog" race during a performance held as a part of a celebration of the country's 75th anniversary of independence in Tangerang, Indonesia, on Monday, Aug. 17. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)
By Ben Opipari For the Washington Post

Because your child’s classroom this fall probably will be the dining room, it would be a good idea to send them outside before they start their school day. They’ll be primed to learn.

In 2009, researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise at 60% of maximum heart rate improves academic performance in children – immediately.

“Think of that as about the pace of the walk to school in the morning,” says Charles Hillman, lead author of the study and associate director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University.

Pre-adolescent kids walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes and afterward were administered cognitive tests. (The pace was easy enough that no child dropped out.)

The conclusion was that “single, acute bouts of moderately intense aerobic exercise may improve the cognitive control of attention” for at least 60 minutes afterward.

Aerobic exercise, Hillman says, helps kids focus their attention during demanding tasks – such as their online lessons at the dining room table with family members milling about – and helps them tune out distractions

This focus allows them to process information more quickly, he says, which translated in the study to better accuracy on cognitive measures and higher achievement scores in reading and math.

After this study, other researchers were interested in the follow-up question: Could exercise help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who have trouble focusing or staying on task and keeping out distractions?

Results were promising. One 2012 study found that immediately after exercise, children with ADHD performed better on tests in reading and math, had greater levels of attention and self-regulated better than they did after solitary reading.

And in a 2020 study, children ages 11 to 16 with ADHD who cycled for 20 minutes at moderate intensity showed similar improvements in staying on task for at least 60 minutes after they exercised.

Matthew Pontifex, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and lead author of the 2012 study, says that those with ADHD normally have difficulty monitoring and controlling off-task behaviors.

But after exercise, “they were better able to regulate their behaviors … and were better able to institute corrective actions.”

This happens because exercise seems to help with a child’s ability to inhibit inappropriate impulses and select a more appropriate response to that impulse. For example, rather than act out in frustration if they can’t solve a problem, a child might ask a teacher for help.

Exercise also can help suppress a motor response to a learned behavior, like talking out in class. In the classroom, this control helps kids focus on the instruction. At home, it might keep them focusing on the online lesson and resist the temptation to go play Roblox.

The implications for classroom learning are enormous: Children with ADHD could stay on task longer and require less redirection, which could make instructional time more effective when kids are home this fall.

The good news is that 20 minutes might not be necessary. Even short bursts of exercise during breaks in instructional time are effective, which for many parents is more practical. And any movement works.

In 2004, Matt Mahar, director of the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, developed the Energizers program, a series of short-duration physical exercises kids can perform.

Mahar recommends two or three breaks a day to help keep students on task wherever they are. Exercise in the middle of instructional time, Mahar writes, is part of a consistent finding in research that “classroom-based physical activity results in better on-task behavior than sedentary seated lessons” for all kids, not just those with ADHD.

Mahar’s research also showed improved on-task behavior after physical activity in the classroom – he found that kids who were the least on task to start with had a much greater increase in time on task after physical activity compared to the rest of the students.

Kids with ADHD could fall into this territory: The students who benefit the most also are those who need it the most.

“If kids pay attention, they learn better, and there are fewer behavioral problems,” Mahar says.

At the private McLean School in Potomac, Md., which welcomes children with ADHD in K-12, exercise is everywhere. Teachers use exercise breaks during instructional time to ensure that students stay on task.

Second-grade teacher Kerri Sullivan gives her students short assignments with movement breaks in between. “I might read a story and discuss it with my students in one area of the room,” Sullivan says. “Then they transition back to their seats to do the writing assignment.”

At their morning meeting, students can participate in movement exercises, and they use short bursts of exercise throughout the day. It’s also common for teachers at McLean to send students out of the classroom for a walk if they are having trouble concentrating.

Opipari has a master of arts in teaching and was a former special education teacher in Montgomery County, Md., public schools.

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