Parents and teachers are always looking for creative, developmentally-appropriate ways to keep children with ADHD actively engaged in activities. Wilderness therapy programs believe that one of the most natural ways to encourage learning and participation is through movement and play, including outdoor adventure activities. While we have witnessed firsthand how physical activity helps teens organically engage in the therapeutic process, we turn to evidence-based research to support our therapeutic techniques. A recent study, conducted by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, shows that exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory and focus, which explains why teens with ADHD may be more successful in being present during experiential activities.

How Does ADHD Affect Concentration in Teens? 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is typically thought of as a short attention span. Instead, ADHD refers to problems regulating one’s attention span to desired tasks. This means that in addition to trouble paying attention to information that feels mundane or irrelevant, teens with ADHD may also hyperfocus on tasks or activities they find to be stimulating. While they may struggle with focusing in class or on homework assignments, they can lose track of time reading, playing video games, or participating in outdoor activities. 

This is why many professionals recommend experiential learning strategies for teens who have trouble focusing in a traditional learning environment. Teens may filter out information through auditory processing. However, encouraging them to be hands-on not only helps them to understand what they are learning but why what they’re learning applies to their lives. With this buy-in, teens are more motivated to work on tasks and feel a greater sense of achievement.

How Can Exercise Improve Executive Functioning?

In the UT Southwestern study, researchers wanted to map brain changes after one year of aerobic workouts in older adults with memory problems. One group participated in 12 months of aerobic exercise training, while the control group focused on stretching. After a year, participants in the exercise group showed 47% improvement in memory scores compared to the stretch participants. Brain imaging showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus–areas of the brain associated with memory, emotions, self-regulation, and impulse control. Researchers concluded that exercise not only supports brain development and building neural connections, it can also help interrupt problems with executive functioning issues, like memory and attention, when added into one’s routine.

Like in the Alzheimer’s patients featured in the above study, brain imaging studies of teens with ADHD show that they are more likely to exhibit lower levels of activation in their hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex during routine tasks. Instead, they are more likely to utilize areas of the brain related to sensory processing and motor control, which explains the common disconnect between their thoughts and emotions when making decisions. Several studies show that exercise is the key to synchronizing emotions and behaviors by integrating one’s experience.  

Why is Exercise Important for Teens with ADHD?

We know exercise supports physical health and brain health, but it also has a positive impact on emotional health! Exercise helps improve the mind-body connection, allowing teens with ADHD to be more present and focused on the task at hand. This makes it easier for them to become more in tune with their emotions and recognize how the activities they participate in them make them feel or what it brings up for them. For example, teens who have experienced trauma are better able to unlock and work through memories when they develop this body awareness through physical activity.

At blueFire Wilderness, we introduce teens to a wide variety of outdoor activities and switch up activities based on interest and weather. This gives teens a sample of activities that they may continue to enjoy when they transition home both as hobbies and as coping skills. ADHD is often identified in teens based on excess restless energy that interferes with their ability to learn in a classroom environment and build mutual relationships with peers. Rather than focusing on the consequences of trouble paying attention, this approach encourages teens to channel their energy into activities that are good for their wellbeing. Part of the ADHD brain involves insatiability for new experiences, so it is helpful for teens to accept this and seek out fun adventures instead of turning to high-risk behaviors like substance use or criminal activity to meet this need. 

Through physical activity and team-building exercises, teens with ADHD work on building confidence and leadership and take advantage of their skills. While your teen may have felt insecure about their learning abilities in a classroom setting, finding activities they enjoy where they can have personal success helps them rediscover their passions and set realistic goals for themselves based on their individual strengths.

blueFire Wilderness Can Help 

blueFire Wilderness Therapy is an adventure-based program for teens ages 11-17 who struggle with mental health issues, like ADHD, anxiety, depression,  and behavior issues. Wilderness therapy removes students from the distraction of peers, devices, and demands of life and allows them to heal in a supportive and nurturing environment. Clients will be able to focus on themselves and become more aware of their troubling behaviors. BlueFire gives them the skills and tools they need to combat these behaviors and be on their way to a happy and healthy life.

For more information about wilderness therapy for teens with ADHD, call 1-844-413-1999. We can help your family today!

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