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Investigating physical exercise as a method to help children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD

0 2 years ago

Physical exercise is good for maintaining health and research from around the world provides supportive evidence. Exercise can also have positive effects for people living with, or at risk of developing different medical conditions, for example diabetes or cardiovascular disease.The potential for exercise to improve human health and reduce the cost of healthcare has stimulated many countries to provide advice on exercise, for example in the UK, guidelines published by the Chief Medical Officer.

Exercise for health and exercise prescription are hot topics currently in the UK in healthcare research and on popular TV shows. What might surprise some people is that these ideas are not new to medicine. Sushruta of India in the 8th century BCE and Hippocrates of Greece in the 5th century BCE prescribed exercise. The “healthy mind in a healthy body” being central to the Hippocratic philosophy also reminds us of the importance of mental health.

Can physical exercise improve mental health as well? A growing body of research indicates this may be the case. Research into physical exercise for mental health has produced results indicating it is effective for reducing symptoms of different conditions, either alone or as an adjunctive intervention. Conditions for which improvements have been found include depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and alcohol abuse.

Is there more research to be done? Yes, there is much more to discover about the pathways by which physical exercise affects the function of different parts of the brain to achieve the positive changes that are observed.

An example of an active research area is investigating physical exercise as an adjunct to standard treatment for children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Children with ADD and ADHD experience a reduction in symptoms and are able to manage their own behaviour more easily when they engage in regular moderate to intense physical activity. This helps them successfully focus on other activities with their peer-group in school and at home. The reduction in symptoms, particularly the improved focus and attention is also associated with higher cognitive scores when tested in studies. However, the activities need to engage the children to achieve moderate to intense activity to have the positive effects.

My team including a brilliant MSc student and a sports psychologist colleague developed physical exercises for children with ADD and ADHD to help them manage their symptoms based on multiple different activities per 50-minute physical education (PE) session with short periods (5 – 7 minutes), for any one task. Selecting activities that engaged the children was the key to this successful study and this was achieved by fully involving the children in the choice of activities through their feedback during and after each of the exercise sessions. The teachers reported being surprised and delighted with the positive changes they observed in the children. This was a very rewarding research project that brought together experts in psychology and exercise science to the benefit of the children and their families. There is more work to be done on the next stage of this project, providing opportunity for anyone interested to join the research team.

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