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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Harding-Duggan

ADHD and Exercise: The Why, the How, the So What Now?

We all know that exercise is good for us, but why is it specifically beneficial to those living with ADHD? To answer that we need to dip into the brain stuff - bear with me here. According to Dr. John Ratey MD, exercise “tempers ADHD” by increasing the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. It also balances norepinephrine in the brain stem. Why is this important? Because it improves regulation of attention and is associated with a lesser tendency to startle or react out of proportion to a given situation. In a small pilot study published in Frontiers in Psychology; Jan 9, 2019, researchers postulated that the catecholaminergic system (which includes the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine) is hypoactive in people with ADHD. In their study, participants demonstrated cognitive improvement (in the specific test being administered) while walking, due to increased release of catecholamines during exercise. Moreover, Kelly McGonigal, PhD., proposes, in the Mind and Body article titled Five Surprising Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain, that exercise benefits include priming the brain to better connect with others, increases sensitivity to joy, modulates the nervous system to reduce the tendency to jump into fight or flight mode, builds trust and belonging, and can transform self-image. Notably Dr. McGonigal references the increase in dopamine from exercise as well as the fact that over time exercise remodels the brain's reward systems leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. Finally, Dr. Sarah McKay, shares in the Neuroscience Academy that exercise upregulates BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which is likened to a fertilizer for the brain - this becomes increasingly important during the aging process.

Ok, so we now know a bit about why exercise is important for the brain. But for people with ADHD is there any specific type or frequency of exercise that is recommended? The answer to that is yes! According to Dr. Ratey, complex exercise is best as it activates many areas of the brain. Some examples of complex exercise include martial arts, dance, tennis, and rock climbing. With regard to frequency, Dr. Ratey recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day.

We now know a bit about the why and the how….. So why aren’t more people utilizing this as a strategy to support cognitive functioning and overall health? Well let’s break it down. We know that ADHD and time blindness are closely associated. This means that if your exercise goal is too far in distance it holds no motivational power. Ask yourself, at what point does the future become fuzzy for me? Some of us can see the next week clearly, while for others it is only a couple of days. This means you need to break that goal down into smaller manageable sub-goals.

What are your expectations? Is this where “all or none thinking” sabotages even the best of intentions? While Dr. Ratey recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, I would venture that any exercise is better than none. What is doable for you? What makes sense for your lifestyle? How might you reframe what exercise means to you?

How can you use exercise to your advantage? By working out before a big meeting or attending a lecture you are priming the attentional system, so to speak, for the next hour or so. When using this strategy you not only get your workout in but reap the cognitive benefits at the same time. Efficiency!

Another useful strategy, which also taps into one of our foundational human needs, is that of connection. Why not team up with a friend? Accountability cannot be underestimated.

Finally, I would suggest employing a learner mindset. Get curious about what exercise means to you. When do you blow it off and when are you successful? How do you feel after exercising and how can you externalize that feeling to help motivate you next time?

Remember, that you want to incorporate exercise into your life in a sustainable way. So have some fun, move your body, and your brain will thank you!


The ADHD Exercise Solution, John Ratey MD, Additude Magazine

Attention Improves During Physical Exercise in Individuals with ADHD, Frontiers in Psychology, Jan 9, 2019

Five Surprising Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain, Kelly McGonigal, Mind and Body

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