People with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) seem to have a surplus of energy, which most people would not associate with obese individuals. However, recent research has shown a relationship between obesity and children with ADHD, although these studies have not been able to demonstrate a causal relationship.
A recent study by researchers from the Imperial College London, published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, provides evidence linking the two conditions. They found that children with ADHD symptoms had a significantly higher chance of being obese as an adolescent.
The researchers analyzed data from a longitudinal study, the Northern Finland Birth Cohort (NFBC) 1986, which followed almost 7,000 children in Finland. To determine ADHD behavior, at age 7 the children were assessed by their teachers using the Rutter B2 scale, a validated approach for screening the mental health of children. At 16, the behavior of the participants was screened using a parent-reported Strengths and Weaknesses of ADHD symptoms and Normal Behavior (SWAN) scale.
To assess whether the participants were overweight, obese, or normal weight, the researchers used the body mass index (BMI) scale, following the accepted guidelines for each category. They used reports by the parents of the child’s weight and height at 7 years old to determine each child’s BMI. At 16, qualified professionals performed a health examination of each participant that included height, weight and measurement of the waist and hip girths, used to calculate waist-hip ratio (another obesity measuring tool).
There were also questions on the survey to find out the level of physical activity of the participants. The parents reported how often the children preferred physically active play at age 7. At 16, the adolescents responded to questions about the extent of their physical activity outside of school.
Analysis of the data found that the children who had ADHD symptoms when they were 8 years old had a higher chance of being obese by the age of 16, as well as being less physically active. They also found that children who did not wish to take part in physically active play at age 8 tended to be more inattentive as teenagers.
The researchers also looked to see whether conduct disorder (CD) contributed to adolescent obesity, in order to see if it might be a possible reason for the link between ADHD and obesity. To learn more about the associations, the researchers analyzed data about subjects with either ADHD or CD, rather than those with both conditions. They found that those with inattention and hyperactivity due to ADHD had increased association with abdominal obesity, while CD had a higher risk of being overweight, as well as an increased risk of being sedentary. Although this provided some insight into the complex relationship between the disorders, they feel that more research is needed in order to make a conclusion about the specific role CD plays in the association of ADHD with obesity.
Previous researchers had hypothesized that inattention due to ADHD might have been associated with binge eating, and thus cause obesity. However, binge eating disorder, a potential contributing factor for obesity, was not found to be more prevalent in those with ADHD. However, there are other causalities and disordered eating patterns that might be associated with ADHD that were not examined for this study.
The researchers believe that the association between ADHD and obesity might be due to a few contributing factors. They found inattention and hyperactivity were predictors of inactivity. This might be due to the fact that physical activity requires attention and concentration, which might make those who are inattentive due to ADHD not enjoy, or find it difficult, to participate. It also might be because children with ADHD experience peer difficulties, such as being bullied, not following rules, and other social problems. This could make it more difficult to engage in structured and team sports, potentially limiting the type of physical activities in which the children could participate. There could also be biological issues that are associated with ADHD, obesity, and physical inactivity, that further connect the conditions. Not enough research has been done on CD to know whether some of the same associations apply to that condition.
Researchers concluded that there is an increased risk for children with ADHD or CD symptoms to become obese and be physically inactive as adolescents. They also found that physical inactivity plays a role in both the ADHD and CD associations with obesity. Additionally, reduced physically active play in childhood is an early risk factor for having inattention symptoms in adolescence.
Exercise and physical activity provides help for ADHD, as well as preventing obesity. Previous studies have shown that exercise improves the behavior of children with ADHD. This study shows another reason why exercise and physical activity is important for those with ADHD: lowering the risk of becoming obese and developing the associated health problems. Physical activity has also shown to help facilitate human development, as well as improve general mental health and academic performance. With such a strong relationship between ADHD and obesity, it is even more important that children with ADHD symptoms get out and get active.
Physical activity is important for a person’s overall health and well being, not just to prevent obesity. Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. Unhealthy habits, such as a sedentary lifestyle, that occur in childhood and adulthood often lead to habits in adulthood, which is why it is so important for children and teenagers to develop healthy habits, such as exercising.