Larry Maucieri Ph.D., ABPP-CN

The Distracted Couple


Exercise for the ADHD Body and Mind

Benefits of exercise go well beyond the body for ADHD.

Posted Feb 10, 2016

Source: Colton Cotton, June 1, 2011, Wikimedia Commons

Last month we looked at music and the benefits of musical training on ADHD. This time it’s another activity that does the body and mind good: exercise.

Not before you cringe and stop reading, let me clear up what I mean by “exercise.” Yes, it includes the treadmill and weights, but it’s also physical activity that people do for fun. Things like skiing, hiking, bike riding, yoga, swimming, playing basketball, even walking the dog. Exercise here means physical activity that gets you moving, your heart pumping, and makes you break a sweat.

Exercise is the golden boy of the healthcare world, isn’t it? I mean, when’s the last time you heard something bad about exercise from the experts?

The thing is, we all know it’s good for us, but it’s hard to keep with it over the long run. It takes effort. It can be boring. It hurts. And until it’s a habit we don’t regularly feel its benefits and its natural high afterward.

Exercise, like healthy eating, works best as a habit, a long-term behavior. A burst of exercise is like a short-term diet. No long-lasting benefits. Exercise is the tortoise and not the hare.

A guy who exercises 2-3 times a week over a year comes out way ahead of the one who exercises every day for 4 weeks, burns out, and never goes back to it. That’s one of the problem with many New Year’s resolutions: they’re too ambitious or too intense at the start to have staying power and so it’s easy to burn out. Like healthy eating, exercise works best when it’s a marathon and not a sprint.  

Increasing Chances of Exercising

Getting into a regular pattern of exercise helps solidify it as a habit. The “I go to the gym Monday-Wednesday-Saturday” plan is more likely to work than “I go to the gym as often as I can.”

The first plan has a structure that’s easy to repeat and that sets up clear expectations. If a day is missed for some reason, then the solution is to substitute in a different day or just pick up on it the next scheduled day. That’s different than getting derailed, feeling guilty, avoiding it, and then finally feeling you’re too far gone to get back into it again.

A reliable, structured plan to exercise (and do other tasks) can help folks with ADHD. It’s following through on what’s planned for the day rather than trying to figure it all out and juggling competing demands in the moment.

Some exercise can be, well boring, and so it’s important to make it easier to do. If the treadmill is easier with music or TV then include those. If you like cycling first thing in the morning before breakfast then do it then. If you dislike exercising alone join a spinning class, get a lifting buddy, or play pick-up basketball. The point is to take steps that make you more likely to follow through, not give you reasons to miss. Once exercise become a habit, it’s easier to do. But it’s still a struggle sometimes. Some people do better with a gym close to home or work. Others do better with a personal trainer to get them there. Whatever works for you. Use those tools to keep this investment in yourself going.

ADHD meets Exercise

Exercise is a complementary way to manage ADHD, in addition to first-line interventions (medication and psychotherapy). Support groups, family support, coaching, involvement in organizations like CHADD or ADDA, and the like are also common ways to work with ADHD.

Exercise has a multitude of benefits for body and mind. It reduces stress and anxiety. It elevates mood, and some studies have even found it as helpful for managing mild depression as medication! (See for instance a recent study by Jan Knapen and colleagues).

For some individuals with ADHD, the regular structure of an exercise program is helpful. Beyond that, the physically engaging nature of exercise is a lot more fun and interesting for many than more passive, cognitive tasks. The physical benefits of regular exercise are self-evident, and exercise enhances self-esteem, self-confidence, and cardiac health.

Inside the brain a few things are happening during and after exercise as well.

Physical activity like exercise releases dopamine, a key brain chemical that is typically lower among individuals with ADHD. Among dopamine’s many functions, it may play a role in attention and multi-tasking, often areas of struggle in adults with ADHD. Exercise also leads to the release of endorphins, a groups of brain chemicals related to opiates. Endorphins are naturally-occurring, tightly controlled, and give us a sense of calm, satisfaction, and a reduced perception of pain.

Finally, exercise need not be a solo pursuit. It is easy enough to play a game of football, exercise or run with a friend, or join a spinning class. And when we share a common activity with others, we bond with them and benefit from the activity itself, doubling our reasons to do it again.