The Secret Weapon for ADHD

Written by LIz Brown, PCC, CWC, CACP, CPRC. Posted in Family Health.

What is not as commonly known are the cognitive benefits of exercise, especially for those with ADHD. In fact, studies have shown that aerobic activity has provided some with ADHD the same benefits as stimulant medications. Many have been able to work with their physician to adjust their medication when following a consistent fitness routine.

John was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. Currently he is a college freshman who is struggling to stay focused on his school work.  He did well in high school and was a three-sport athlete and on the honor roll.  He chose not to play sports in college because he wanted to focus on studying.  

Marcia, who also has ADHD is  a 45-year old mother of three with a full-time job.  Until the symptoms of perimenopause started last year, she could manage her ADHD symptoms with strategies she had learned in her teens. She had to give up her time at the gym when her job schedule changed.  

Jesse is a 10-year-old with ADHD who recently started middle school.  While in elementary school, he could manage his ADHD at school but has struggled this year as his schedule has changed and there is less time for recess and gym.  

Each of these individuals ranging from child to adult might benefit from adding a little-known treatment for ADHD to their overall treatment plan.

When we think of treatment for ADHD, we typically think of medications like Adderall, Strattera or something similar.  While these medications can be a necessary part of a treatment plan, there are some non-medication interventions that can help as well. One of these interventions is generally free or low cost and might surprise you It’s called exercise. 

Back in the 1980’s, Dr Robert Butler, founder of the National Institute on Aging stated basically that if exercise could be made into a pill form, it would be the most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.   

Dr. Butler was primarily linking exercise to how it is beneficial to our physical health.  Over the years there has been  more research that has shown the benefits of excercise for brain health as well.Most experts agree that physical exercise is good for our body.  Exercise keeps us strong, helps with weight management, lowers blood pressure and helps reduce stress.  

What is not as commonly known are the cognitive benefits of exercise, especially for those with  ADHD.  In fact, studies have shown that aerobic activity has provided some with ADHD the same benefits as stimulant medications.  Many have been able to work with their physician to adjust their medication when following a consistent fitness routine.  

Why does it work?

Just as exercise improves circulation by increasing blood flow to our body, it also increases blood flow to the brain. Many with ADHD have less of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brain than the neurotypical (or non-ADHD) individual.  Dopamine is one of the chemicals in the brain that controls attention and mood.  The other neurotransmitter that controls attention is norepinephrine.  When we exercise the levels of both chemicals rise and we not only feel better (sometimes called “runner’s high”) but we also have a better ability to focus.   While one can experience these benefits whenever they exercise, consistent aerobic exercise will raise the baseline of these neurotransmitters which will provide a higher level of attention on an ongoing basis. 

John Ratey, MD has done extensive work in the field of ADHD and exercise research.  He has found that more technical exercises like karate, gymnastics, skateboarding and mountain biking help control the cerebellum which is overactive in many with ADHD.  Training in these kinds of activities requires that you use many areas of your brain to concentrate, sequence, timing and balance.   Therefore, these are an ideal way to strengthen areas of the brain that might be weaker and create symptoms in those with ADHD. 

Why is it hard?

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for many with ADHD to stick to a consistent exercise routine even when they recognize the benefits it provides.  Some of the typical ADHD symptoms are difficulty planning and sticking with a plan, time management difficulty and procrastination.  These symptoms can easily sabotage an exercise plan.  In addition, many do not think they have time to exercise because they feel constantly behind.  

For children and teens, there are a few additional obstacles.  There has been a trend toward reducing the amount of recess time and gym classes in schools to add more time for classes.  Added to that, video and other electronics often outweigh the choice to go outside and get exercise when teens and children are at home.

How to Incorporate exercise?

Research shows that the amount of exercise needed to provide the benefits is 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 5 times a week or 10-20 minutes of intense exercise 5 times a week.  However, it is not all or nothing.  If you only have 10 minutes 3-4 times a week, it will provide some benefit as well.  John Ratey suggests some ways to add exercise to reap the rewards.

Aerobic exercise like running, brisk walking, biking, swimming or any other activity that elevates the heart rate will raise the levels of the neurotransmitters which help to improve focus and build new cells in the brain.   Other activities that involve a skill like yoga, karate, tai chi, ballet gymnastics or even skateboarding also will strengthen and grow brain function specifically in areas that relate to learning and memory.  Activities that are both aerobic and skilled are best yet because they combine both benefits.  Activities like tennis, soccer, squash and other team sports involving continual running are perfect.  Partner sports like ballroom dancing are also beneficial for expanding the brain’s capacity because they require attention as you adjust to the movement of a partner which is a complex brain function.   Just like the muscles in our body, the brain will grow as we add activities that strengthen it.

Children will follow their parent’s example so adding family activities like hiking, jumping on a trampoline, biking or even walking will get the kids up and moving.  Be creative and have a dance night, family Olympics or even a morning walk as a group.

Other fun and effective ways to consistently exercise are pairing up with a friend or joining a class because of the accountability and support.  There are also many fun apps or activity trackers that will track activity and can help motivate you to get moving.  Hiking or rowing clubs, charity walks, ballroom or line dancing studios are great options as well because they combine exercise with connection with others which is also good for brain health.    And finally, the most important element is to find something you like and put it on your calendar as an investment in your health because you are worth it!

 

Liz Brown PCC, CWC, CACP, CPRC is a certified Life Coach with specialty certifications in Wellness, ADHD and Recovery. She is owner of Be Well Life Coaching LLC in Centerville, Delaware. Over the past decade, Liz has helped hundreds of clients create positive sustainable changes in their personal and professional lives. In addition, she is a certified yoga instructor and uses a mindful approach to help her coaching clients turn challenges into opportunities. Liz offers individual coaching and workshops and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (302)584-5521. Visit www.bewelllifecoaching.com for more information.

 

 

John was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. Currently he is a college freshman who is struggling to stay focused on his school work.  He did well in high school and was a three-sport athlete and on the honor roll.  He chose not to play sports in college because he wanted to focus on studying.  Marcia, who also has ADHD is  a 45-year old mother of three with a full-time job.  Until the symptoms of perimenopause started last year, she could manage her ADHD symptoms with strategies she had learned in her teens. She had to give up her time at the gym when her job schedule changed.  Jesse is a 10-year-old with ADHD who recently started middle school.  While in elementary school, he could manage his ADHD at school but has struggled this year as his schedule has changed and there is less time for recess and gym.  Each of these individuals ranging from child to adult might benefit from adding a little-known treatment for ADHD to their overall treatment plan.When we think of treatment for ADHD, we typically think of medications like Adderall, Strattera or something similar.  While these medications can be a necessary part of a treatment plan, there are some non-medication interventions that can help as well. One of these interventions is generally free or low cost and might surprise you It’s called exercise. Back in the 1980’s, Dr Robert Butler, founder of the National Institute on Aging stated basically that if exercise could be made into a pill form, it would be the most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.   Dr. Butler was primarily linking exercise to how it is beneficial to our physical health.  Over the years there has been  more research that has shown the benefits of excercise for brain health as well.Most experts agree that physical exercise is good for our body.  Exercise keeps us strong, helps with weight management, lowers blood pressure and helps reduce stress.  What is not as commonly known are the cognitive benefits of exercise, especially for those with  ADHD.  In fact, studies have shown that aerobic activity has provided some with ADHD the same benefits as stimulant medications.  Many have been able to work with their physician to adjust their medication when following a consistent fitness routine.  Why does it work?Just as exercise improves circulation by increasing blood flow to our body, it also increases blood flow to the brain. Many with ADHD have less of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brain than the neurotypical (or non-ADHD) individual.  Dopamine is one of the chemicals in the brain that controls attention and mood.  The other neurotransmitter that controls attention is norepinephrine.  When we exercise the levels of both chemicals rise and we not only feel better (sometimes called “runner’s high”) but we also have a better ability to focus.   While one can experience these benefits whenever they exercise, consistent aerobic exercise will raise the baseline of these neurotransmitters which will provide a higher level of attention on an ongoing basis. John Ratey, MD has done extensive work in the field of ADHD and exercise research.  He has found that more technical exercises like karate, gymnastics, skateboarding and mountain biking help control the cerebellum which is overactive in many with ADHD.  Training in these kinds of activities requires that you use many areas of your brain to concentrate, sequence, timing and balance.   Therefore, these are an ideal way to strengthen areas of the brain that might be weaker and create symptoms in those with ADHD. Why is it hard?Unfortunately, it can be difficult for many with ADHD to stick to a consistent exercise routine even when they recognize the benefits it provides.  Some of the typical ADHD symptoms are difficulty planning and sticking with a plan, time management difficulty and procrastination.  These symptoms can easily sabotage an exercise plan.  In addition, many do not think they have time to exercise because they feel constantly behind.  For children and teens, there are a few additional obstacles.  There has been a trend toward reducing the amount of recess time and gym classes in schools to add more time for classes.  Added to that, video and other electronics often outweigh the choice to go outside and get exercise when teens and children are at home.How to Incorporate exercise?Research shows that the amount of exercise needed to provide the benefits is 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 5 times a week or 10-20 minutes of intense exercise 5 times a week.  However, it is not all or nothing.  If you only have 10 minutes 3-4 times a week, it will provide some benefit as well.  John Ratey suggests some ways to add exercise to reap the rewards.Aerobic exercise like running, brisk walking, biking, swimming or any other activity that elevates the heart rate will raise the levels of the neurotransmitters which help to improve focus and build new cells in the brain.   Other activities that involve a skill like yoga, karate, tai chi, ballet gymnastics or even skateboarding also will strengthen and grow brain function specifically in areas that relate to learning and memory.  Activities that are both aerobic and skilled are best yet because they combine both benefits.  Activities like tennis, soccer, squash and other team sports involving continual running are perfect.  Partner sports like ballroom dancing are also beneficial for expanding the brain’s capacity because they require attention as you adjust to the movement of a partner which is a complex brain function.   Just like the muscles in our body, the brain will grow as we add activities that strengthen it.Children will follow their parent’s example so adding family activities like hiking, jumping on a trampoline, biking or even walking will get the kids up and moving.  Be creative and have a dance night, family Olympics or even a morning walk as a group.Other fun and effective ways to consistently exercise are pairing up with a friend or joining a class because of the accountability and support.  There are also many fun apps or activity trackers that will track activity and can help motivate you to get moving.  Hiking or rowing clubs, charity walks, ballroom or line dancing studios are great options as well because they combine exercise with connection with others which is also good for brain health.    And finally, the most important element is to find something you like and put it on your calendar as an investment in your health because you are worth it!

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