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Ask any elementary teacher, and he or she will tell you that students with ADHD need their exercise. But is this backed up by research? Can exercise be a substitute for other evidence-based treatments such as medication and behavior therapy? Research does indeed support that exercise assists with some symptoms of ADHD.

In a 2014 study by Hillman, et al, (Pediatrics, 134(4)), students who were placed in an after-school exercise program demonstrated enhanced performance on inhibition and executive control. The students’ brain scans even showed more brain activity when given executive control tasks a day after the exercise! 

So can exercise be a substitute for medication and/or behavior therapy? Researchers agree that while exercise is a very beneficial addition to other ADHD treatments, it has not been found to be a substitute. The evidence-based treatments that are most effective for treatment of ADHD continue to be stimulant medication, behavioral therapy, and their combination. However, exercise can be an important addition to the daily routine of a student with ADHD.

Ideas for incorporating exercise:

  • Go out for a family walk or bike ride.
  • Play tag out in the yard.
  • Try geocaching (using a GPS-enabled device, such as a smart phone, to navigate to specific GPS coordinates to find a hidden cache or container).
  • Participate in community team sports.
  • For children who are not interested in traditional team sports, individual sports such as swimming, running, or martial arts may be more successful.

Blogger Stephanie Dunne, Ed.S., is the Center Director at Springer School and Center. Prior to coming to Springer, Stephanie practiced as a school psychologist in public and private schools for ten years.

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