By Dr. Mercola
Fidget spinners are the latest go-to gadget for schoolkids, but as their popularity has soared, so too has the controversy surrounding them. The hand-held, ball-bearing devices spin satisfyingly when manipulated by the users' thumb and fingers, providing what would seem to be a novel form of fidgeting. The devices' popularity is evidenced by Google searches for "fidget spinner," which were non-existent a year ago, and then suddenly peaked in popularity in May 2017.1
Part of the rise is due to the way they're being marketed — not just as trendy "toys," but as tools to relieve stress and increase focus, particularly in people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and anxiety. While first making headlines for posing a potential choking hazard if any pieces break off, they've continued to be in the news because experts are split over whether fidget spinners are useful or only further distracting for kids.
The Act of Fidgeting May Be Beneficial
While fidget spinners are a recent fad, the act of fidgeting is an age-old human habit that does appear to offer some benefits. Chair-based fidgeting has been shown to increase energy expenditure by 20 percent to 30 percent,2 offering a potential way to offset some (but certainly not all) of the adverse effects of prolonged sitting. In fact, fidgeting was found to reduce the risk of premature death that's associated with excessive sitting time.3
There's also the suggestion that fidgeting may occupy part of your brain, providing a needed distraction from racing or negative thoughts or serve as a type of ritual that may help with calm and focus, similar to doodling.4 Occupational therapists have long used various therapy toys, such as sensory putty, for children with ADHD, autism, anxiety and sensory issues,5 and some believe fidget spinners provide another similar option.
Miriam Gwynne, a parent to a child with autism, wrote on AutismAwareness.com that fidget spinners and similar devices help her daughter to relieve stress, noting, "For her, the fidget spinner is not a must-have craze to be like her friends, but more a stress release from the demands placed upon her during her school day — much the same as she uses a stress ball or her twist-and-lock blocks."6
Cleveland-based pediatric occupational therapist Claire Heffron also voiced support for the devices to The Washington Post, stating, "These little gadgets should be called fidget tools, not toys, and they can be part of a successful strategy for managing fidgety behavior if they are introduced as a normal part of the classroom culture."7
Science Is Lacking to Back Up Fidget Spinners for ADHD, Autism
While some believe fidget spinners may help, and being a low-cost intervention probably can't hurt, others disagree. As the tools have grown in popularity, they've become a distraction in classrooms — to the extent that some schools are now enacting fidget-spinner bans. Julie Schweitzer, director of the Attention, Impulsivity, Regulation Program at the University of California Davis MIND Institute, told The Sacramento Bee:8
"I know people who have used some of these fidget gadgets, and some of them have said they've been helpful … but until we test it, we don't know. From what I've seen, (the fidget spinner) is becoming so ubiquitous that it's overtaking the classroom and becoming a huge distraction … To me, it's common sense. If you give somebody a toy or they could be doing classwork, what's going to be more interesting?"
In the journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics, meanwhile, researchers wrote that "fidget spinners and other self-regulatory occupational therapy toys have yet to be subjected to rigorous scientific research. Thus, their alleged benefits remain scientifically unfounded." They added that pediatricians should be aware that the devices present a potential choking hazard and should "inform parents that peer-reviewed studies do not support the beneficial claims."9
If your child is struggling with focus and attention, and even in cases of ADHD, be aware that the use of a fidget spinner, particularly in the classroom, may be counterproductive, as it could draw your child's attention away from the task at hand. It could also end up posing a distraction for others. There may be times when fidgeting — and tools like fidget spinners — serve a valuable purpose, but, overall, physical games or sports are a better option than playing with fidget spinners.
Exercise Is Proven to Benefit ADHD
While the science behind fidget spinners for ADHD is virtually non-existent, there is solid evidence backing the use of exercise to relieve ADHD symptoms. In 2014, researchers found that among 7- to 9-year-olds moderate to vigorous exercise enhanced cognitive performance and brain function during tasks requiring greater executive control.10
The benefits were found with as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day, and applied to children with varying types of ADHD (including those with greater symptoms of hyperactivity or inattentiveness), those at risk for ADHD and even the control group of children without ADHD.11
Study author Betsy Hoza, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, told the Child Mind Institute, "The most important message is that physical activity is important for children's development regardless of whether you have ADHD or not … There's other research that suggests it has cognitive benefits for all children and we all know the physical benefits … Unless a child has a physical challenge that would be exacerbated by activity, exercise is a do-no-harm intervention."12
In 2010, meanwhile, research published in the Journal of Attention Disorders revealed that children with ADHD who participated in a 10-week physical activity program had improvements in muscular capacities, motor skills, behavior and level of information processing.13
As for why exercise is so useful for ADHD, Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explained in ADDitude, a magazine for families and adults living with ADHD, that elevations in dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin which play a role in attention, plays a role.
Exercise has been compared to medication for ADHD, as it leads to improvement in executive control, which is the ability to maintain focus, working memory and cognitive flexibility (or switching between tasks).14 Executive functioning is often impaired in children with ADHD. Ratey noted:15
"Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention … On a practical level, it causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn."
What Type of Exercise and Sports Are Best for Kids With ADHD?
The type of activity can make a difference in how it affects your child's mood, attention and behavior. For starters, competitive sports may not be the best choice, according to Hoza. "In today's world there are so many children's sports that are very competitive, and those wouldn't be the best choice for kids with ADHD who have a hard time following directions or might not be as coordinated as their peers," she said.16
Sports that allow children to be part of a team, yet focus on developing their own individual goals, like swimming, track, cross-country or even tennis, may be a good choice, particularly if the coach is sensitive to the needs of a child with ADHD (such as not punishing a momentary lapse in attention). Some children with ADHD, especially those with extra energy, may enjoy wrestling as well — and it may be beneficial for your child to take part in multiple activities.
In fact, research shows that children with ADHD who participated in three or more sports had significantly fewer anxiety or depression symptoms compared to those who participated in fewer than three.17 The chosen activity (or activities) should, of course, be something your child enjoys, which will encourage him or her to keep doing it.
Ratey also recommends activities that require close attention to body movements, which in turn "tax the attention system" — "A very good thing for kids and adolescents with ADHD," he says. Examples include martial arts, gymnastics and ballet.18 In the case of martial arts, an added benefit is that it promotes rituals that children can also apply to other areas of life.19 Other good options, which promote teamwork, concentration, self-confidence and/or self-esteem, include soccer, horseback riding, fencing and archery.
If your child enjoys a sport like baseball, which can have a lot of downtime, ADDitude recommends talking with the coach about slight modifications that can help keep your child engaged, such as frequently changing field positions or giving your child an assistant job while waiting to bat.20
If a Fidget Spinner Is Too Distracting, Try Essential Oils
If your child seems to benefit from using a fidget spinner, there's little harm in its occasional use (assuming it's not distracting fellow classmates). However, if this intervention seems like more of a hindrance than a help, consider the use of essential oils to increase focus, attention and calm. Vetiver oil (vetiver is a type of Indian grass) appears to be particularly useful. In one study, when children inhaled the oil three times a day for 30 days they had improved brain wave patterns and behavior and did better in school.21
Eighty percent of the children also improved when using cedarwood essential oil similarly.22 Improvements in brain activity were revealed via electro-encephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical impulses moving through the brain.
This allowed researchers to determine whether the children's brains were functioning primarily in a beta (i.e., alert) state or a theta state (i.e., lack of focus). Improvements in beta-theta ratios were noted following the use of vetiver essential oil, while parents also noted improvements in symptoms.
Another study, published in the Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology, also showed vetiver essential oil to have particular promise for ADHD. The animal study revealed changes in brain activity suggestive of increased alertness,23 while research on human subjects revealed faster reaction times and stimulation of sympathetic nerve activity following inhalation.24
A Comprehensive, Lifestyle-Based Plan Can Improve Focus, Attention and Behavior
If your child is struggling with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms, I recommend consulting with a holistic physician who is experienced in treating ADHD using natural methods, including not only exercise but also behavioral therapy and more. In a study that analyzed the effects of drug versus behavioral treatment on homework performance in children with ADHD, the drug treatment led to no significant improvements in homework completion or accuracy compared to placebo.
The behavioral therapy, however, led to children finishing up to 13 percent more homework problems and increased accuracy by 8 percent.25 Dietary strategies can also be very effective, including limiting sugar and avoiding gluten. The evidence suggesting that gluten sensitivity may be at the root of a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including ADHD, is quite compelling. One study went so far as to suggest celiac disease should be added to the ADHD symptom checklist.26
Kids low in omega-3 fats may also be significantly more likely to be hyperactive, struggle with learning disorders and display behavioral problems. A clinical study published in 2007 also examined the effects of krill oil on adults diagnosed with ADHD.27 In that study, patients improved their ability to concentrate by an average of over 60 percent after taking a daily 500-milligram (mg) dose of krill oil for six months. They also reported a 50 percent improvement in planning skills and a close to 49 percent improvement in social skills.
Addressing nutrient deficiencies (such as vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium) and avoiding toxic exposures, including to food additives, glyphosate and other pesticides and radiofrequency microwave radiation, cell and portable phones and electropollution is also important. Ultimately, a fidget spinner may provide fleeting moments of distraction or calm, depending on the user, but to remedy ADHD, anxiety and other mental health challenges, a comprehensive, holistic approach will typically be required.