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Exercise and Meditation Help Kids With ADHD in Just 10 Minutes

mother and daughter meditating in child's bedroom

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Key Takeaways

  • New research found that exercise and mindfulness meditation could improve cognitive function and emotional well-being in children with ADHD.
  • The benefits occurred after just 10 minutes of meditation or exercise.
  • Experts say that while exercise and meditation probably won’t replace medication, they can be helpful tools for children to cope with ADHD symptoms in the moment.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it difficult for children to focus at school and regulate their emotions. But there might be a couple of easy coping mechanisms kids can practice in the moment to reduce with these symptoms, according to new research. 

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation and 10 minutes of physical activity can help improve emotional wellbeing and cognitive function.

“The findings within this study are potentially life-changing for millions of families,” says Matt Shenker, MEd, licensed professional counseling resident with Thriveworks in Hanover, Virginia.

Let’s take a look at the latest findings on meditation and exercise for ADHD, along with how these tools might fit into a child’s ADHD treatment plan.

The Study

For this study, a group of research from Ontario, Canada, recruited 16 children with ADHD from local community clinics between June 2019 and January 2020. The children were between 10 and 14 years old, and 11 of them were boys. Just 20% of the participants were non-white.

Over a series of days, the children were asked to engage in 10 minutes of exercise, 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 10 minutes of reading (which was a control by which to assess the other interventions). These activities were assigned in a random order. The researchers asked the children’s guardians not to give them ADHD medication in the 24 hours before visiting the lab.

Matt Shenker, MEd

The findings within this study are potentially life-changing for millions of families.

— Matt Shenker, MEd

The researchers took measurements on the children’s executive functioning (including working memory, ability to control impulses, and task-switching capabilities) and psycho-emotional state at three points in time: before the activities, immediately after the activities, and again 10 minutes later. 

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that mindfulness meditation improved children’s working memory, ability to control their impulses, and task-switching skills.

The results also showed that 10 minutes of exercise provided benefits to children’s emotional well-being, such as a mood boost. 

Understanding the Benefits

Experts say the findings of this research help quantify the benefits they’ve read about in previous studies and seen firsthand when children with ADHD engage in physical activity and meditation.

“Children and adolescents who routinely exercise and engage in mindfulness meditation tend to exhibit brighter affects, fare better academically, and engage in more meaningful interactions,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers.

But one surprising thing to come out of the latest study is just how quickly children with ADHD can reap the benefits of these interventions.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Children and adolescents who routinely exercise and engage in mindfulness meditation tend to exhibit brighter affects, fare better academically, and engage in more meaningful interactions.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

“This means that a child doesn’t need an eight-week program to see benefits,” says Shenker. “If a school counselor only has five or 10 minutes to work with a child, they can rejoice that there’s evidence that if they choose to utilize a mindfulness-based intervention, it can have a lasting positive impact.”

He adds that it could also help mental health professionals provide effective, long-lasting strategies for children with ADHD in as little as one session, and teachers intervene quickly when their students with ADHD are struggling in the classroom. 

With that said, this study had a small sample size, so the results may be different among larger groups of children. More research is also needed to determine just how long these benefits last.

Can Meditation and Exercise Replace ADHD Medication?

ADHD is often treated with prescription medication that can reduce hyperactivity, curb impulsiveness, and increase attention span. But given that many of these medications can be abused and cause negative side effects, parents are often looking for alternative ways to manage their children’s ADHD. 

“Every week, I meet a parent of a child with ADHD or executive functioning challenges who feels exhausted and hopeless. These parents know that ADHD is not a curable condition and many of them feel like their only options are to continue treading along feeling exhausted by the challenges that come with parenting a child with executive functioning deficits or to seek out medication,” says Shenker, who was previously a school counselor. 

He continues, “This study, and several others, show that we’re not powerless. If a child has ADHD or has difficulties with executive functioning skills, there are actions that they can take to improve those skills.”

Still, there’s not enough research to prove that meditation and exercise can completely replace medication as an ADHD treatment for children, says Ciarán Friel, EdD, assistant investigator at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. 

“It is too early to know how effective mindfulness and exercise are in reducing the effects of ADHD. However, it is reasonable to think that incorporating them into a treatment plan will reduce the required dose of medication in some children, and potentially remove the need for it in certain individuals,” he says. “But, it is most likely that the majority of ADHD treatment plans will be most effective when exercise and mindfulness are used in combination with medication.”

Even if these interventions aren’t a substitute for medication, incorporating meditation and exercise into an ADHD treatment plan could offer a range of other benefits for children, beyond the immediate improvements to emotional well-being and cognitive function found in this research.

“Mindfulness allows children to combat stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression—all of which could exacerbate ADHD symptoms inclusive of inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity,” says Dr. Magavi, adding that “children with ADHD thrive in active environments.”

More importantly, the results show that there are simple actions that children with ADHD can take when they’re experiencing symptoms, which may help foster confidence and growth.

Shenker says, “This is empowering information for the child, the family, the mental health professional, the educator, and collectively as a society.”

What This Means For You

Looking for ways to help a child with ADHD? Try asking them to exercise or practice mindfulness meditation. New research shows that just 10 minutes of these activities immediately boosts cognitive function and emotional well-being in kids with ADHD.

While it’s unlikely that meditation and physical activity can replace the role of medication in ADHD treatment plans, these interventions could be empowering tools to help children cope with symptoms in the moment. Plus, they may offer other important benefits, such as stress reduction, improved sleep, and lower rates of anxiety and depression, that improve children’s overall mental health. 

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  1. Bigelow H, Gottlieb MD, Ogrodnik M, Graham JD, Fenesi B. The differential impact of acute exercise and mindfulness meditation on executive functioning and psycho-emotional well-being in children and youth with ADHDFront Psychol. Published June 14, 2021. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.660845