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Helping children with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bring their symptoms under control often involves elaborate school plans and accommodations, time-consuming behavior therapy and stimulant drugs. What if there were an easy and inexpensive alternative?

Researcher Kathleen Holton, a behavioral neuroscientist at American University, suggests in a newly published study in the Journal of Attention Disorders that a “healthy lifestyle” may also make a difference. This involves adhering to strict limits on screen time (only one to two hours a day), making sure the child is physically active (at least one hour a day), getting enough sleep (nine to 11 hours) and limiting sugared beverages while drinking plenty of water (seven to 10 cups a day).

“Many parents of children diagnosed with ADHD do not want their children on medication. Having their children follow healthy lifestyle behaviors may be an effective intervention, either alongside or in the place of traditional ADHD medications,” Holton said.

These recommendations, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Sleep Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are for all children. But Holton found in a study of 288 children ages 7 to 11 that those with ADHD were less likely to follow those guidelines. In that group, 184 had an ADHD diagnosis and 104 did not.

The new study is the latest signal of the scientific community’s efforts to provide parents alternatives to medicating their children.

Two other studies published in the same journal found similar benefits in healthy lifestyle habits. A Canadian study found that after a 10-week physical training program, children with ADHD improved their muscular capacity and motor skills and had more positive behavior reports from parents and teachers. Another showed that a simple 20-minute walk in a park was enough to help children increase their attention levels. “Doses of nature” might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new item in the toolkit for managing ADHD symptoms, the researchers wrote.

In early May, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged parents of preschoolers with ADHD to try behavior therapy before trying drugs. Their concern comes from the fact that while the CDC recommends that parents try behavior therapy before moving on to medications, less than half of young children with ADHD are receiving such services, while 75 percent are on drugs for treatment.

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