Emerging evidence suggests that physical activity (PA) enhances cognition and may be a protective factor for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Yet the impact of PA on ADHD symptoms has been investigated only in a few undersized, nonrandomized, and retrospective studies. We examined the effect of PA during late adolescence on ADHD symptoms in early adulthood while controlling for unmeasured genetic and shared environmental confounding.
The effect of PA at age 16 to 17 years (baseline) on ADHD symptoms at age 19 to 20 years (follow-up) was examined using a within-monozygotic (MZ) twins fixed-effects model in 232 MZ twin pairs born in Sweden between May 1985 and December 1986. Parents rated their children's DSM ADHD symptoms at baseline and follow-up. Participants' weekly energy expenditure (in metabolic equivalent task minutes per week) was based on self-reports at baseline of PA frequency, intensity, and duration.
Greater weekly energy expenditure in adolescence was significantly associated with reduced ADHD symptom levels in early adulthood, even when controlling for unmeasured confounding (all genetic and environmental factors shared within MZ twin pairs) as well as ADHD symptoms and body mass index (BMI) at baseline, ß = -0.21, p = .013 (95% CI = -0.38 to -0.05). Similar results were observed for the 2 ADHD subcomponents: hyperactivity/impulsivity, ß = -0.21, p = .022 (95% CI = -0.39 to -0.03), and inattention, ß = -0.19, p = .049 (95% CI = -0.36 to -0.0005).
In line with a causal hypothesis, PA was inversely associated with ADHD symptoms, even after adjusting for unmeasured confounding. These findings suggest that PA in adolescence might decrease ADHD symptoms in early adulthood. However, given the size of the effect, the clinical value of this intervention needs to be explored further.
Comment In: J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2015 Jul;54(7):537-826088656