Exercise Linked to Reduced ADHD Behaviors

To many, ADHD treatment means using medications.  Yet while medications can play an important role, a number of other types of interventions have also been shown to be effective.  One area that has received some investigation is the role of physical activity and exercise in alleviating symptoms.  Parents and clinicians alike have naturally been drawn to activities that can “burn some of that energy,” but actual studies that have examined the role of exercise have often struggled to tease apart the direct contribution of physical activity from underlying genetic causes. A recent study attempted to examine the association between physical activity and ADHD symptoms by taking advantage of a twin design.

Photo by Photostock and freedigitalphotos.net

Photo by Photostock and freedigitalphotos.net

The data come from 232 monozygotic twins participating in the Swedish Twin Study of Child and Adolescent Development. Levels of physical activity were assessed when subjects were between 16 and 17 years old, based upon three multiple-choice questions, while ADHD symptoms were assessed at age 16 to 17 and again at 19 to 20. The statistical analyses tested the association between physical activity at age 16-17 with parent-rated ADHD symptoms at age 19-20 while controlling for initial ADHD symptoms and the shared genetic and environmental factors between each twin pair.

Results showed that more physical activity in late adolescence was associated with reduced ADHD symptoms in early adulthood even after controlling for ADHD symptoms at baseline, BMI, and most notably shared genetic and environmental factors. This reduction was found for both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms, although the effect size was relatively small.  The authors concluded that their study added stronger evidence that reduced physical activity is indeed casually linked to more ADHD symptoms, albeit weakly.

It is worth noting that the sample was not a clinical one, so it remains to be seen whether or not the same results would have occurred with a group of individuals who have been diagnosed with ADHD.  The assessment of physical activity was also not particularly rigorous.  These limitations aside, the study does provide more compelling data that helping patients increase physical activity can be an important aspect of comprehensive multi-modal treatment.


Rommel AS, et al.  Is Physical Activity Causally Associated With Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder? JAACAP 2015;54(7):565–570.

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