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Exercise as a Prescription for Children's Mental Health

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Exercise as a Prescription for Children's Mental Health

Nov 27, 2023

Is regular exercise the key to managing ADHD, anxiety, and depression in children? Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, examines recent evidence that shows how increased physical activity can significantly improve mental health conditions in kids. Also, learn practical strategies that parents can use to integrate more exercise into their children's daily routines.

Episode Transcript

It's well known that kids who have ADHD have the wiggles, and kids with anxiety or stress often feel like they can't sit still either. What if your child's pediatrician included a prescription for 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day to help your child's mood and focus? Well, that's just what's being recommended by a lot of mental health specialists right now. Since pediatricians seem to be the mental health providers for a lot of children because it's so hard to get kids into therapists and psychiatrists, this is something you might be hearing at your child's next appointment.

There actually is a lot of research behind this too. Just this year the British Journal of Sports Medicine published that exercise can be an effective treatment tool for clinical depression. Science shows that exercise promotes the creation of new nerve cells in the brain. It supports something called neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to adapt to changes.

Impact of Exercise on Cognitive Functions

During exercise, there is an increase in a protein called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Research suggests that this protein activates the growth of the brain cells, and that can improve focus, improve memory, and boost a person's mood. It's already well known that exercise increases other neurotransmitters, the same brain chemicals that medications target, like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

Improving Academic Achievement through Exercise

Finally, exercise activates a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain used to plan things, evaluate situations, and basically help us work better. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that exercise improves academic achievement and standardized test scores when they went back and reviewed over 50 different studies to see if there was a correlation.

Recommendations for Aerobic Activity in ADHD Management

Yet another journal published that kids who have ADHD have better executive functioning skills if they exercise just 20 minutes a day. But the Journal of Attention Disorders—yes, there actually is one—recommends that kids aim for 45 minutes of aerobic activity 3 times a week for at least 10 weeks to improve thinking skills and behavior.

Parental Guidance and Encouragement

So there really is a lot of research out there about how being active can help brain health, which in turn helps a person's mental health, not just for ADHD, but also for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. I also know that our social work team often talks to patients, that they are doing therapy with, about the importance of being active as one of the tools in their toolbox that they can use whenever they are feeling anxious or depressed or they just have too many wiggles.

So as a parent, if you are trying to help your child's behavior or mental health, encourage them to go out and play. It will do their body and their brain a lot of good.