Can You Exercise Away ADHD Symptoms?
Exercise can offer many benefits including minimizing ADHD symptoms. The trick: Mix it up with different workouts and include a reward structure.
By Kristen Stewart
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass MD
We all know that there are many health benefits of exercise, but what you may not know is that exercise may also help child ADHD or adult ADHD symptoms. Kerri Golding, 37, of Atlanta, has personal experience living with ADHD and professional expertise working as a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice specializing in children and adolescents and a sub-specialty in ADHD.
“Exercise can definitely help clear my head,” says Golding. “Oftentimes when one has ADHD it is hard to ‘turn your mind off.’ Exercise helps me to do that.” She does a combination of running, spinning, and lifting weights, but finds the most success keeping up with her exercise routine when she’s training for half-marathons.
ADHD Treatment: Physiological Benefits of Exercise
While no one knows the exact cause of ADHD, research indicates it may be related to a dysfunction with the neurochemical dopamine, Golding says. Exercise not only encourages the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain, but by doing so has the same effect on the brain as the stimulant methylphenidate (Ritalin), she explains.
“In essence, exercise does for the brain the same thing that the medications do,” says Golding. “The challenge is that the effects of exercise only last for a few hours following the activity. Since it is not always possible to exercise multiple times a day, other interventions [like medication] can be helpful.”
The increased dopamine produced through exercise can help improve attention and focus in people with ADHD, but that’s not all. “Exercise also produces endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain,” says Golding. “Thus, exercise is nature’s antidepressant. Exercise also helps children and adults get rid of restless energy, which is a symptom of ADHD. In fact, the worst thing a teacher can do to an unruly child is to take away their recess time.”
As for research: Not much research has been done yet on the exact link between ADHD and exercise, but researchers studying rats recently found confirming results that physical activity could be used as a possible intervention for ADHD symptoms.
Exercise for Success
Sports can be a challenge for people with ADHD symptoms for several reasons. “Novelty is a key factor in grabbing and holding the attention of someone with ADHD,” says Richard Horowitz, EdD, a parenting and relationship coach in Flemington, N.J. and author of Peaceful Parenting: Parent Empowerment and Child Empowerment. Consider not only participating in a variety of sports to keep boredom away, but change up the time of day and the type of music listened to just to keep things interesting.
Also, give some thought to the type of physical activity. Aerobic exercises like running, elliptical machines, cycling, and so on increase the neurotransmitter levels, which is important. Calming exercises have their place as well. “There are calming exercises that slow the system and can have tremendous benefit,” says Nancy Konigsberg, MA, an occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics in N.J. “For example, there are yoga programs designed to help calm children with ADHD and allow them to focus better.”
Team sports such as baseball may be difficult for some people, but this can vary by individual. Also, people with ADHD symptoms should avoid sports with inherent danger such as extreme mountain biking and bungee jumping as they can get caught up in the rush of excitement and not realize possible hazards.
Finally, don’t forget structure and reward. A written log of goals can be kept with rewards given every certain number of workouts. “Always have rewards to strengthen the motivation — Starbucks coffee after the exercise or a new book after two weeks of sticking to the program,” says Gary M. Unruh, MSW, a practicing clinician in Colorado Springs, Colo., who has spent 40 years working primarily with ADHD children and adults and is author of Unleashing the Power of Parental Love.
There’s no doubt exercise is hard work, but the benefits of exercise — especially for someone with ADHD — are well worth it.