ADHD — or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — is a fairly common mental health condition. People with ADHD may have a tough time paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, and be overactive.
It’s caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain, primarily dopamine (
The condition has a significant genetic component, though it can also be caused by environmental factors, premature delivery, low birth weight, brain injuries, and alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy (
While ADHD is most often diagnosed in childhood, it’s also known to affect a certain percentage of adults.
Traditional treatment methods include medications and behavior management, though more progressive approaches include dietary and exercise modifications.
This article covers exercise’s effects on ADHD, including the effects of some specific exercises, and even my personal anecdote.
Performing regular exercise plays a key role in promoting various areas of brain health, regardless of whether a person has ADHD. Let’s first review how exercise stimulates mental health.
Can improve memory
Memory has the potential to decline throughout the aging process, in part due to changes in blood flow to the brain (
As we age, our large arteries and veins stiffen slightly, resulting in less efficient blood circulation throughout the body, including the brain (
One of the most effective ways to counteract the stiffening of the vascular system and prevent related memory loss is to perform regular exercise (
Both aerobic (longer duration, lower intensity) and anaerobic (shorter duration, higher intensity) exercise can improve cardiovascular function (
Can enhance learning
A key factor in the learning process is brain plasticity, or the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to internal or external stimuli (8).
Research suggests that one of the ways to improve brain plasticity is through regular exercise (
More specifically, exercise plays a crucial role in allowing you to retain new mental and physical skills. Its associated learning improvements are accomplished by changing how our brain cells communicate with each other.
Can improve mood
Other important effects of exercise on the brain are improved mood and promoted feelings of well-being.
You may be familiar with the euphoric feeling you get following a high intensity strength workout or good run, which is often referred to as a “runner’s high.”
This is due to a release of feel-good chemicals in the brain — mainly endorphins and endocannabinoids (
These substances are partly responsible for improvements in mood following exercise (
What’s more, one large study including 611,583 adults found a close link between physical activity and a reduced risk of developing depression (
Therefore, regular exercise can help boost your mood and may help prevent depression.
May help prevent or delay the onset of certain brain diseases
Research suggests that performing regular exercise may help delay the onset of, prevent, or possibly even help treat certain brain diseases (
For example, physical activity is associated with a decrease in age-related cognitive decline and may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain diseases (
While the current research isn’t specific on exercise type or duration, the general recommendation from the American Heart Association (AHA) is to get 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise weekly, preferably spread throughout the week. (
It’s also recommended to perform moderate to high intensity strength training twice a week to maximize health benefits (
Performing regular physical activity has been shown to meaningfully affect brain health. Specifically, it can improve memory, enhance learning, and improve mood, as well as potentially help prevent certain brain diseases.
Exercise is among the top treatments for children and adults with ADHD.
While the benefits of regular exercise are numerous, when it comes to ADHD, in particular, it has several other notable positive effects.
Here are the main benefits of exercising with ADHD, explained in detail.
Promotes dopamine release
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.
In those with ADHD, dopamine levels in the brain tend to be slightly lower than those of the general population (
This is theorized to be due to how dopamine is processed in the brain in those with ADHD (
Many stimulant medications prescribed to those with ADHD seek to increase dopamine levels as a means to improve focus and reduce symptoms (
Another reliable way to increase dopamine levels in the brain is through regular exercise (
As such, staying physically active may be especially important for those with ADHD, as it can have effects similar to those of stimulant medications.
In some cases, this may result in a decreased reliance on medications altogether, though it’s important to consult your doctor before making any changes to your medication regimen.
Can improve executive function
Executive functions are a group of skills controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain (
These include tasks such as:
- paying attention
- managing time
- organizing and planning
- recalling details
In those with ADHD, executive functions are often impaired.
In fact, a study in 115 adults, 61 of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD in childhood, observed significantly impaired executive functions among those with ADHD (
That said, there are several ways to help improve executive functions, including exercise.
A recent study in 206 university students found a link between the total amount of daily exercise performed and their levels of executive function (
Therefore, in kids and adults with ADHD, regular exercise can be a promising treatment method for improving executive function, which is one of the main skill groups affected by the condition.
Changes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) signaling
BDNF is a key molecule in the brain that affects learning and memory (
Some studies suggest that BDNF may play a role in causing ADHD (
Some other potential complications of BDNF dysfunction include depression, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease (
One potential method for helping normalize BDNF is engaging in regular exercise (
In fact, a 2016 review study found that aerobic exercise increased BDNF concentrations in the body (
Nevertheless, the data in this area is inconclusive, so more high quality studies are needed.
Helps regulate behavior and improve attention in children
Exercise is particularly important for children with ADHD.
Many children with ADHD are hyperactive, and exercise can be a positive outlet to release pent-up energy.
Research suggests that exercise offers several benefits for children with ADHD, including (
- less aggressive behaviors
- improvements in anxiety and depression
- fewer thought and social problems
In addition, a 2015 study found that physical exercise improved attention span among a small group of children who had been diagnosed with ADHD (
From the current research, we can conclude that exercise offers tremendous benefits for children with ADHD, specifically in regards to improving attention span and reducing aggression.
Exercise is a top nonpharmaceutical ADHD treatment, as it can promote dopamine release, improve executive function, and alter BDNF signaling. In children with ADHD, it has been shown to improve attention and decrease aggression and impulsiveness.
During youth, purposeful exercise is less important than the overall amount of physical activity a kid gets each day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 6 and older get at least 1 hour of physical activity each day to maintain a healthy weight and promote proper development (34).
These guidelines apply to youth with ADHD as well.
Some examples of how a child can get 60 minutes of physical activity per day include:
- going for a bike ride with family
- playing basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, hockey, or other sports
- playing a game of hide and seek with friends
- jumping rope or playing hopscotch
- going for a hike or scenic walk with family
- following an exercise video or participating in group exercise for kids
The 60 minutes of physical activity can comprise a combination of various activities throughout the day.
For children, including those with ADHD, the overall daily time spent being active is more important than participating in purposeful exercise. The general recommendation is to get 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children over the age of 6.
Just as physical activity is beneficial for children with ADHD, the same applies to adults with the condition.
When it comes to exercising as an adult with ADHD, most studies utilize aerobic exercise in research interventions (
That said, it’s likely most beneficial to include a combination of aerobic and resistance training to maximize overall health benefits (
Some effective exercise methods for adults with ADHD include:
- martial arts
- spinning class
- boxing class
- HIIT (high intensity interval training), in a class or on your own
- weightlifting (either with machines or free weights)
Participating in a variety of activities will prevent you from getting mentally burned out, which is especially important for maintaining focus if you have ADHD.
Lastly, considering that adults typically have a much more regimented schedule than kids, it’s usually most time-efficient to portion off a part of your day for exercise to promote consistency.
Adults have a wide variety of exercise options to choose from, all of which can positively affect their ability to manage their ADHD symptoms. Focus on portioning out a part of your day for exercise to help promote consistency.
The topic of ADHD and exercise is particularly personal for me.
As a youth and throughout my teenage years, I suffered from ADHD. While I took medications to help manage symptoms, I believe sports and exercise were hugely beneficial in keeping me on track.
From the beginning
As a kid, I had trouble focusing and exhibited impulsive behaviors at times. After countless evaluations and tests, I was diagnosed with ADHD.
As early as 6 years old, I can remember going to the school nurse’s office daily to get my medication. At the time, the most common medication for treating the condition was Ritalin. In the following years, I was switched to various others, including Adderall and Concerta.
While I do remember the medications helping, I also remember the side effects — the main one being lack of appetite.
There came a point in my teenage years that the side effects of medication outweighed its benefits. When I was taken off the meds, I began to rely more heavily on sports and exercise to help manage my symptoms.
How exercise helped me
Since I was a kid, I’ve always participated in some kind of sport — whether it be soccer, baseball, or basketball.
In middle school, around 11–13 years old, I was introduced to the weight room and became intrigued by all of the different machines for working various body parts.
From then on, I spent most of my extra time at school in either the gym or weight room.
I found exercise to be an unmatched release for all of my pent-up emotions, and it helped relieve symptoms of ADHD and keep me focused.
From then on I continued to hit the gym, performing a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise.
Where I am today
I continued to struggle with ADHD throughout my early teenage years, though later on I came to better manage my symptoms.
Throughout my high school years, I was better able to focus, and the symptoms of ADHD that I struggled with as a child seemed to have subsided.
While I no longer struggle with ADHD to the extent I did as a kid, at times I become unfocused and have to reel my thoughts back in. Yet, to this day, exercise continues to play a key role in managing my emotions and keeping me focused.
During times when I exercise most consistently, at least 3 days per week, I feel I’m best able to focus on tasks throughout the day and think more rationally.
On the other hand, if I’m unable to exercise for a given period of time, I experience a noticeable difference in my impulsivity and attention span.
In my experience, regular exercise has served as an excellent alternative to the medications that I used to take, without any of the side effects.
However, many children and adults may still require medication to help manage their symptoms. Therefore, it’s important to speak with your doctor before making any changes to your medication regimen.
ADHD is a common mental condition caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance. It often results in difficulty paying attention and controlling impulses, as well as hyperactiveness.
While prescription medications are the most common treatment method, other nonpharmaceutical interventions have also been found to be effective, a major one being exercise.
Performing regular physical activity can improve various areas of brain health, such as memory, learning, and mood, as well as potentially help delay the onset of certain brain diseases.
Specifically in those with ADHD, exercise can promote the release of dopamine (a key neurotransmitter), improve executive function, and alter BDNF (an important molecule for communication between brain cells).
While most research utilizes aerobic exercise for individuals with ADHD, a variety of exercises can be effective in both children and adults.
If you or someone you know has ADHD, it’s worth considering exercise as a complementary or standalone treatment method for managing your symptoms. Take it from me.
Daniel Preiato is a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist based out of Southampton, NY. He received his Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food studies from New York University. He is a registered dietitian working in the clinical setting, with a focus on renal nutrition. In addition, Daniel runs a private nutrition practice in which he serves athletes and the general population on Eastern Long Island and virtually. Daniel is an advocate for resistance training and an avid strength athlete, competing in powerlifting on occasion.