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Sports activities are especially beneficial for young girls

Participating in after-school activities may help young girls overcome attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to some degree, according to a new study from the University of Montreal.

The researchers found that girls who are involved in sports or extracurriculars show improved behavior and attentiveness in early adolescence. The benefits, however, do not seem to be as pronounced among boys.

“Girls who do regular extracurricular sports between ages 6 and 10 show fewer symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder at age 12, compared to girls who seldom do,” said study lead author Professor Linda Pagani. “Surprisingly, however, boys do not appear to gain any behavioral benefit from sustained involvement in sports during middle childhood.”

Prior to the study, it was unclear to what extent organized physical activity is beneficial for children with ADHD symptoms, said the researchers.

“Past studies have varied widely in quality, thus blurring the true association between sport and behavioural development,” said Professor Pagani. “Past research has not acknowledged that boys and girls are different in how they present ADHD symptoms.”

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) harms children’s ability to process information and learn at school, explained Professor Pagani. Being involved in sports can help young people develop life skills and supportive relationships, while providing the opportunity for them to get organized under adult mentorship and supervision.

“Thus, from a public-health perspective, extracurricular sport has the potential to be a positive, non-stigmatizing and engaging approach to promote psychological well-being and could thus be viewed as behaviour therapy for youth with ADHD.”

“Sports are especially beneficial if they begin in early childhood. And so, since using concentration and interpersonal skills are essential elements of sport, in our study we undertook to examine whether it would result in reductions in ADHD symptoms over the long term.”

The research was focused on data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development coordinated by the Institut de la statistique du Québec, which involved nearly 2,000 children born in 1997 and 1998. Parents reported on whether their children participated in an extracurricular physical activity that required a coach or instructor between ages 6 and 10. The children’s behavior was compared to that of their classmates at age 12. 

The team analyzed the data to look for any significant link between sustained participation and later ADHD symptoms, while accounting for many relevant factors.

“Our goal was to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results,” said Professor Pagani.

She noted that in childhood, boys with ADHD are more impulsive and more motor-skilled than girls. “As a result, boys are more likely to receive medication for their ADHD, so faster diagnosis and treatment for boys in middle childhood could diminish the detectable benefits of sport. They might be there; they’re just harder to tease out.”

“In girls, on the other hand, ADHD is more likely to go undetected – and girls’ difficulties may be even more tolerated at home and in school. Parents of boys, by contrast, might be more inclined to enroll them in sports and other physical activities to help them.”

“We know that sporting activities have other numerous benefits for the mental health of all children. However, for reducing ADHD symptoms, middle childhood sports in elementary school seem more noteworthy for girls.”

This is why structured extracurricular activities that demand physical skill and effort under the supervision of a coach or instructor could be valuable to any official policy aimed at promoting behavioral development, according to the researchers.

“Sports activities in early childhood can help girls develop essential social skills that will be useful later and ultimately play a key role in their personal, financial and economic success,” said Professor Pagani.

The study is published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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