How exercise helps ADHD symptoms
It’s no secret that exercise is good for the body, but current research proves that exercise helps ADHD symptoms. And while it’s good for both human and animal brains, it’s impact is especially significant in those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Stimulant medication, the main pharmacotherapy for ADHD, and aerobic exercise both act on catecholamine pathways. These are the precursors to increased dopamine levels, but also endorphins and the feel-good neuromodulators.
These are chemicals that the ADHD brain craves because it doesn’t make enough of them on its own. Unsurprisingly, these are also the chemicals found in methylphenidate (Ritalin), a common stimulant used to treat ADHD, leading some to theorize that exercise could have a similar effect on the brain as medication. Additionally, social and neurocognitive functions seem to be positively affected by exercise as well.
Therefore aerobic exercise should be considered an important adjunct treatment to medication for both children and ADHD adults. Although no controlled clinical trials in ADHD adults have been conducted yet, aerobic exercise helps ADHD symptoms and may be one of the most useful if not essential non-medication practices to incorporate into your day.
An example of how exercise impacted ADHD symptoms
In one study, 28 boys with ADHD were divided into two groups for a 6-week therapy program. One group participated in a 90-minute workout twice a week; the other received 12 behavioral control sessions in place of the workout. While both groups showed a reduction of symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention, the group who exercised showed significantly greater improvement than the one that didn’t.
While the long-term effects of exercise are impressive, research has also shown that even a single exercise session will net immediate benefits that can last from 30 minutes to upwards of two hours. This means that the jog you take just before an important work meeting gives you just the chemical hit you need to buckle down and focus!
Other research suggests exercise helps ADHD symptoms
According to John Ratey, M.D., a renowned ADHD expert, the more technical and complex the exercise, the better. Additionally, any exercise that utilizes both sides of the body, helps establish cross-body neural networks. He cites martial arts, ballet, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skateboarding as some of the best exercises for those with ADHD, because they tap into the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response, thereby increasing the chemicals released and maximizing their effect.
That doesn’t mean that you have to regularly participate in triathlons or Ironman competitions, however. Basic exercises – running, walking, lifting weights, or even dancing – still have a fantastic effect. And don’t discount yoga or similar mind-body exercises that force you to bring your focus inward, either.
Exercise Tips for Adults with ADHD
Now that you know the effect exercise can have on your ADHD symptoms, here are some tips to help you add a regular exercise routine to your life.
1. Start slow.
If you’re not used to a ton of physical activity, take it easy in the beginning. Walk before you run – both literally and metaphorically. The biggest pitfall for most ADHD adults who muster the motivation to start exercising is either quitting too soon before habits have taken hold, or injuring themselves by doing too much too soon.
2. Follow the leader.
In this day and age, you can find an app for anything. The good news is there are a plethora of exercise and fitness apps that have done the heavy lifting for you. (Pun IS intended!) Don’t let the classic ‘I don’t know what to do’ bog you down. Do a quick search and find a 30-day challenge or fitness app that fits your needs. Nearly every phone and service provider have SO MUCH available for free. Following a pre-planned program takes the guesswork out of what to do in a workout. All you need to do is pick a start time, and grab your sneakers.
3. Change it up.
Most people with ADHD get easily bored with the same thing day in and day out. And when they get bored, they give up. If this sounds like you, feel free to change up your routine and give yourself plenty of options.
4. Have fun!
Exercise doesn’t have to be a strict 30-minute run on the treadmill to nowhere. Rent a paddle boat for the day. Roller skate through the park. Have an impromptu dance party while you’re cooking dinner. Anything that gets your heart rate up works! Building fun into anything boosts your ability to do it again.
5. Involve your family and friends.
Exercise helps ADHD symptoms, but it isn’t just for those with ADHD. Body doubling is a very helpful tactic to help motivate yourself and incorporate your social needs as well. Since everyone can benefit, why not schedule a walk after dinner with your spouse. Or, maybe you can create a fun pick-up game with your friends on the weekends. Additionally, many parents are ‘hung’ by taxi-ing their children to after-school events. So, why not organize a group of them while your kids’ at practice or dance? Having company makes workouts seem less like “work” and more like just ‘time out’.
6. Seize the moment.
Are you scrolling through your phone or mindlessly watching a sitcom rerun on TV because you have nothing else to do? Why not recognize that behavior as ‘dopamine surfing’. Heightened awareness can help you find a choice point where you can do something different.
Instead of scrolling, press your internal pause button. Then use that as a cue to make a new choice. Since exercise helps ADHD symptoms, why not get up and walk? Or take the dog for a run? OR, drop down to the floor and do 10 pushups! Remember any exercise is helpful. So, exercise doesn’t always need to be a scheduled, structured activity; sometimes it’s as simple as a spontaneous walk to the corner store for an after-dinner treat.
7. Set alarms and reminders.
In the beginning, it may be hard for you to remember to exercise. The long-range cognitive benefits of any exercise will last for up to 2 hours, so if you want the added cognitive focus boost, it’s best to time your workouts an hour before your work begins. Alarms and reminders are helpful. But, you don’t have to do it that way at all. It’s best to time your workouts at a time of day that is most convenient for you because you’re more likely be consistent. Before long, exercise will just become another part of your daily routine!
8. Consistency is best, but each day offers endless choices
One of the most insipid problems with ADHD is the difficulty of starting again once you fall off the wagon. It’s so tempting to feel bad for missing a workout, to use it as an excuse to not work out today. Remember, what you feel is likely disappointment, but our emotions tend to make BAD decisions. Feel the feeling, and just press the reset button and try again. Habits can be hard to create but consistent behaviors are easier to measure and manage. Consistency can be measured once or twice a week. So, work on daily and weekly goals first to build consistency. Habits are not built until you have at least 60 days of consistent behavior to analyze. Think of building consistency for 9 weeks, and then look back to see if you have been able to build some habits.
Ready to Develop Your ADHD Exercise Routine?
The facts are in! Exercise helps ADHD symptoms, so it’s as good for your neurodivergent brain as it is for your body. Make it a part of your daily routine and reap the rewards!
Interested in other ways to tame the ADHD beast? I can help! Book a free Discovery Call today and let’s get to work!