A narrative review of the effect of sport and exercise on ADHD symptomatology in children and adolescents with ADHD

Jenny Meggs*, Susan Young, Annette McKeown

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Purpose: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental condition with community prevalence globally of 2%–7% (M = 5%; Sayal et al., 2018). Clinicians are routinely encouraged to explain to children and young people the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, including exercise (NICE NG87, 2018). Exercise has been proposed as a safe and low-cost adjunctive approach for ADHD and is reported to be accompanied by positive effects on several aspects of executive functioning (EF). The purpose of this narrative review was to synthesise the contemporary randomised control trial (RCT) studies that examine the effect of sport, physical activity and movement on EF in children and adolescents with ADHD.

Design/methodology/approach: A narrative review approach with a systematic literature search using PRISMA guidelines for screening and selecting relevant systematic reviews was used. The final review included four peer-review systematic reviews (>2019).

Findings: The results identified four RCT meta-analyses and findings showed that children and adolescents with lower baseline cognitive performance demonstrated greater improvements in functioning after physical activity interventions, particularly for tasks with higher executive function demands, where baseline performance reaches an optimal level. Findings suggest that 10–20 min of acute moderate-high-intensity exercise interventions (cycling/running) appeared to have positive effects on indices of inhibitory control. Preliminary evidence suggests that as little as 5 min of jumping exercises improved inhibitory control. Sixty to eighty minutes of moderately intense, repeated (chronic) exercise appeared to demonstrate the greatest beneficial impact on selective attention.

Originality/value: To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this review is the first to present the extant literature on the effect of physical activity and sport on symptoms of young people with ADHD. It presents evidence to suggest that exercise with progressively increasing cognitive demands may have positive effects for children with ADHD, specifically in terms of improving cognitive flexibility. Further large-scale clinical trials are needed to confirm the positive effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning in children with ADHD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)303-321
Number of pages19
JournalMental Health Review Journal
Issue number3
Early online date6 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2023


  • ADHD
  • Exercise
  • Sport

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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