Recent statistics from the CDC indicate a rise in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) — from 7.8% in 2003 to 11% in 2011. Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist, and she has a good idea why it’s so hard for today’s schoolchildren to sit still:
The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.
Hanscom says this results in children with less-developed vestibular systems (for balance) and core body strength. Exercising once a week or soccer practice twice a week isn’t going to cut it for these kids, who “are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before”:
Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.
A new study in Pediatrics looks with alarm at physical inactivity in children as it relates to executive function (the attentional and organizational tools needed to learn efficiently) and school performance:
The pandemic of physical inactivity is a serious threat to global public health accounting for ∼10% of all premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases. Despite evidence that such inactivity detrimentally affects brain health and aspects of cognition known as executive control (also called cognitive control) in older adult populations, this area remains understudied in children.
As one might guess, the researchers found that increased physical activity correlated positively with improved cognitive functioning and brain health. James Hamblin sees these results as a green light for doctors to prescribe exercise in addition to stimulant medications for their patients with ADHD:
John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, suggests that people think of exercise as medication for ADHD. Even very light physical activity improves mood and cognitive performance by triggering the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, similar to the way that stimulant medications like Adderall do. In a 2012 TED talk, Ratey argued that physical exercise “is really for our brains.” He likened it to taking “a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.”
More PediaBlog on ADHD here.