Can being outside help treat ADHD?

kid blows bubbles outside
© Olga Enger/Shutterstock

If you've never met a kid on ADHD meds, you probably haven't asked a lot of kids about their meds. One out of every 10 kids gets diagnosed with ADHD, and 62 percent go on medication for it. That's a lot of Ritalin.

Believe it or not, giving kids powerful drugs has some downsides. Drugs used to treat ADHD can cause trouble sleeping, chest pain, convulsions and a number of other side effects. But scientists may have come up with a new cure, one that seems so obvious, it makes me a little mad: letting kids outside.

"We can say that as little as 20 minutes of outdoor exposure could potentially buy you an afternoon or a couple of hours to get homework done," Frances Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies the relationship between people and their environment, told the New York Times.

Kuo has conducted a number of studies on the subject over the years. In one controlled field experiment, she and her colleagues found that children who walked through a park for 20 minutes were better at solving puzzles afterwards. The scientists found that this short walk was just as effective as a dose of ADHD medication.

"We don’t know what it is about the park, exactly — the greenness or lack of buildings — that seems to improve attention," Kuo added.

In another study, Kuo and other researchers found that "the greener a child’s typical play settings, the less severe his or her general symptoms." And in a third, researchers found that being outside "significantly reduced symptoms" of ADHD in kids.

"If clinical trials and additional research confirm the value of exposure to nature for ameliorating ADHD, daily doses of 'green time' might supplement medications and behavioral approaches to ADHD," write the scientists. "These 'doses' might take a variety of forms: choosing a greener route for the walk to school, doing class work or homework at a window with a relatively green view, or playing in a green yard or ball field at recess and after school."

Here's what weirds me out about these studies. They talk about medication like it's the gold standard for ADHD, and nature like it's a weird alternative treatment.

"While medications are effective for most children with ADHD, they are ineffective for some, and other children cannot tolerate them," the researchers write.

But according to their own research, these "green doses" of nature seems pretty effective, maybe even as effective as the kind than come in bottles.

"A green dose or series of green doses might conceivably reduce the need for medication by 1 dose per day, allowing growing children to recover their appetites in time for dinner and get a good night’s sleep," the researchers write.

Plus, nature works with people who don't have ADHD too.

"Substantial research conducted among non-ADHD populations has shown that 'symptoms' of ADHD—inattention and impulsivity—are reduced after exposure to natural views and settings," write the researchers.

Just about everyone gets "attention fatigue," which the researchers describe as temporary ADHD. After working long enough, it's hard for anyone to focus.

"There are hints in the neuroscience literature that attention fatigue and ADHD are linked to the same underlying mechanism," point out the researchers.

If the researchers are right, then it sounds like kids, both those who have been diagnosed with ADHD and those who haven't, might be better off going outside more. Who knows, maybe locking kids in a building all day isn't the best way to get them to focus.

Can being outside help treat ADHD?
Nature has a treatment, and it doesn't come in a bottle.

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