Children with brain-based disabilities have “the most to gain” from physical activity

Published On June 19, 2018 | By caitlynclancey | Life, News, Sci/Tech

ParticipACTION released its 2018 Report Card which emphasizes the importance of exercise on kids’ brain health. (ParticipACTION)

Caitlyn Clancey

A new report says children with brain-based conditions can benefit from physical activity, but they aren’t getting the daily exercise they need.

The Canadian non-profit organization ParticipACTION released its 2018 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth on Tuesday linking the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health. Canadian children were given a D+ for overall physical activity, which is a slight increase from 2016’s grade of a D-.

The report, developed in partnership with a team of pediatric neuroscientists, exercise scientists, clinicians and practitioners, includes the disclaimer that this slight improvement does not represent an actual increase in the proportion of children and youth meeting the age-specific physical activity benchmarks.

The report found only 35 per cent of children between the ages of five to 17 and 62 per cent of three- to four-year-olds are getting the recommended levels of physical activity for their specific age group. This may have an effect on their brain health, leading them to be less attentive, moody, and fall short of their potential in the classroom.

For children with brain-based disabilities like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, a lack of exercise may mean they’re missing out on greater improvements in cognition and mental health.

Dr. Jeremy Walsh, a post-doctoral fellow with Health Active Living and Obesity Research and a member of the expert panel behind the report card, said the research showed significant improvements for children with brain disorders after exercise.

“What we see is that individuals with brain-based disabilities show very large and marked improvements in aspects like attention, memory, and other parts of mental and cognitive health,” he said.

“I think one of the neat findings, especially about ADHD, is that if children perform a single session of physical activity, and then we measure their brain function afterwards, we see their attention function actually improves greatly,” Walsh said. “This translates to improvements on academic outcomes as well.”

Although research on the topic is still limited, the report’s preliminary evidence explains exercise may play a part in both prevention and management of anxiety in children, including those with neurodevelopment disabilities.

In a press release, Dr. Mark Tremblay, the report card’s chief scientific officer, said physical activity can be greatly beneficial for a child with a brain-based condition.

“[Kids] with brain-based disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder or ADHD, may experience even greater improvements in learning and thinking as a result of regular physical activity,” he said. “In order to help support the development of strong, healthy brains, we need to encourage kids to get enough daily heart-pumping physical activity.”

In addition to reducing anxiety, the report says physical activity can also improve cognitive behavior for a child with a neurodevelopment disability, as well as reduce symptoms of depression, improve their stress response, and enhance their self-esteem, self-concept and self-perception. Sedentary children often have higher stress levels, while those who participate in physical activities display better stress resilience.

Research suggests the rush in serotonin and dopamine, also known as the “feel-good” brain chemicals that are released during exercise, may play a role in promoting feelings of happiness in youth. The report adds children and youth with brain-based disabilities are at an increased risk for mental health problems, but long-term participation in  physical activities may improve emotional health.

Jen Ryan, a volunteer with the Kingston-based ADHD Parent Support Group, knows firsthand just how effective physical activity can be for a child with brain disabilities. Her 14-year old son was diagnosed with ADHD, a non-verbal learning disability, anxiety and depression when he was in the second grade.

“My son is inattentive with less of the physical hyperactivity,” Ryan said. “However, his brain is hyperactive. Being given the opportunity to move, fidget, bounce, or walk, he can calm his brain and focus. Physical activity means the difference between getting a call from the school or not.”

While the research indicated exercise can improve symptoms of brain-based disabilities, such as depression and anxiety, Walsh said there is no evidence yet that suggests physical activity can prevent these symptoms altogether.

“The literature is not quite there yet,” he said. “But it definitely seems like these children who might be at a lower level have the most to gain from performing physical activity.”

As far as whether a report like this may indicate exercise can be a new form of treatment, Ryan believes treatments are as different as the children themselves.

“My son is not even a little bit interested in team sports, but he loves skateboarding, walking his dog and riding his bike,” she said. “The key is to treat the whole child – counselling, meds, exercise, diet, whatever works.”

“I think the key is for parents and/or caregivers to encourage physical activity, period,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t have to be competitive in nature. If that isn’t who your child is, you are just exchanging one set of issues and battles for another.”

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