A Canadian study suggests that girls — not boys — who take part in school sports activities in middle-school have better behavior and attentiveness in early adulthood. Preventative Medicine.
“Girls who do regular extracurricular sports between ages 6 and 10 show fewer symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age 12, compared to girls who seldom do,” said Linda Pagani, a professor at Université de Montréal’s School of Psychoeducation.
“Surprisingly, however, boys do not appear to gain any behavioural benefit from sustained involvement in sports during middle childhood,” said Pagani, who led the study co-authored by her students Marie-Josée Harbec and Geneviève Fortin and McGill University associate medical professor Tracie Barnett.
Pagani recalled that the team was unsure if organized physical activity was beneficial for ADHD children as they were preparing their research.
“Past research has varied in quality, so blurring any true connection between sport and behavioral development.” She continued: “On top, past research has not acknowledged the fact that ADHD symptoms are different for boys and girls.”
An opportunity to get organized
Pagani explained that ADHD can affect children’s ability and ability to learn and process information at school. Sport helps young people build life skills and support each other with adults and peers. It gives you the chance to organize yourself under adult supervision.
Pagani stated that extracurricular sport could be considered a positive, non-stigmatizing, and engaging approach to psychological well-being. It could also be used as behaviour therapy for ADHD youth.
“Sports are especially helpful if they are started in the early years of childhood.” Because ADHD symptoms can be reduced by using interpersonal and concentration skills, we conducted a study to see if it could.
Pagani and her team came to their conclusions after examining data from a Quebec cohort of children born in 1997 and 1998, part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development coordinated by the Institut de la statistique du Québec.
Parents of the 991 girls, and the 1,006 boys in this study reported whether their sons or daughters participated in an extracurricular activity that required a coach/instructor between the ages 6-10. Teachers rated the children’s behavior compared to their classmates at 12 years old. Pagani’s group then analysed the data to find any significant link between sustained involvement and later ADHD symptoms. Many possible confounding factors were also eliminated.
Pagani stated, “Our goal was eliminate any pre-existing condition of the children or families that could put a different spotlight on our results.”
“Boys more impulsive”
Why is it that ADHD girls benefit from sports but not boys?
Pagani stated that ADHD in childhood makes boys more impulsive than girls and is more motor-skilled. As a result, they are more likely to be prescribed medication for ADHD. This could reduce the benefits of sports for boys. They may be there, they’re just more difficult to identify.
“ADHD in girls is more likely to go undiagnosed — and girls’ problems may be easier to tolerate at home and school.” Boys’ parents may be more inclined to enroll their children in sports and other activities to aid them.
She said, “We know that sports activities have other benefits for mental health for all children.” For ADHD symptoms reduction, middle childhood sports in elementary schools seem to be more important for girls.
UdeM researchers suggest that structured extracurricular activities that are physically demanding and require effort under the supervision a coach/instructor could be beneficial to any official policy aimed towards promoting behavioral development.
Pagani concludes: “Sports can help girls develop social skills that will be helpful later and ultimately play an important role in their economic, financial, and personal success.”
The work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanties Research Council of Canada and other funders, including the Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon.