Children with ADHD have trouble paying attention largely due to dopaminergic dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex. In the typically developing brain, dopamine, a common neurotransmitter, works to help the brain tune in to the environment. In other words, dopamine acts as an amplifier helping the brain to pay attention. In children with ADHD, dopamine does not work as effectively in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive control, and thus patients have difficulty paying attention. Dopamine is critical for attention…so how can we help our kids to produce more dopamine and therefore pay more attention? One answer is exercise.
Exercise has been shown to increase neurotransmitter release, improving cognitive function. People often describe this effect as an endorphin high, and it is this natural high that can be leveraged to help treat inattention in ADHD. Studies have shown that acute aerobic exercise for just 30 minutes can significantly improve patients’ ability to pay attention. Further studies have shown that this improvement in attention occurs regardless of whether the patient uses stimulants like methylphenidate.
What’s even more promising is that exercise’s effects on the brain are long lasting. In fact, consistent exercise leads to “positive morphological, chemical and cognitive effects on the brain across the lifespan”. Because early childhood is the time period where there is the greatest amount of plasticity in the brain, it is vital that young children, especially those with ADHD, are encouraged to exercise, and that playtime is incorporated into their daily activities. In essence, physical activity may be a way to teach the brain how to mitigate the harmful symptoms of ADHD by prompting efficient dopamine signaling.
Exercise is a game changer for kids with ADHD, and not just because of its effects on attention. ADHD has high comorbidity with obesity, and research has shown that the link may again be dopamine. Dopamine may be acting to cause overeating in children with ADHD, increasing their risk for obesity. So, while dopamine is malfunctioning to decrease attention and increase obesity, exercise is acting to increase attention and decrease obesity. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone! While exercising may not be the be-all-end-all treatment for children with ADHD, it is certainly proving itself to be worthwhile in helping fight both symptoms and other comorbid disorders like obesity.
Physical exercise is really just another type of behavioral intervention that effectively helps your brain to function properly. In the case of exercise, it is likely through increasing dopamine signaling, and with our product at NeuroPlus, it is through correcting brain wave patterns. Either way, exercises, be they physical or mental, are rapidly revealing themselves to be remarkable treatments for ADHD that leverage the brain’s plasticity and alter the underlying dysfunction. More and more people are taking note of these alternative therapies as they hit mainstream media. So, what are you waiting for? It’s summertime and the perfect time to play outside and get some sunshine!