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The Big Question: Does Exercise Help ADHD?

Read time 4 mins

Living with adult ADHD can feel like navigating a constant mental rollercoaster. Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity can disrupt daily tasks, work, and relationships. While medication can be a valuable tool, it's not the only answer.  

Thankfully there's a powerful, natural way to help adults with ADHD manage their symptoms: physical exercise. Studies are increasingly revealing the significant positive effects exercise can have on adults with ADHD.  

Understanding the ADHD brain and the power of exercise  

For those diagnosed with ADHD, the brain's reward system - particularly the dopamine pathway - often functions differently. Dopamine plays a critical role in focus, concentration, motivation, and emotional regulation. Adults with ADHD may have lower dopamine levels or difficulties with its processing, leading to the core symptoms.  

This is where exercise can help. Physical activity gets your heart beating and your blood flowing, delivering a potent boost to your brain chemistry. Studies (1) show that exercise increases dopamine levels, mimicking the effects of some ADHD medications but without potential side effects. This dopamine surge can lead to a range of improvements in managing your ADHD symptoms and helping you to feel good. 

Beyond the dopamine boost: supporting your all-round wellbeing 

The benefits of exercise for adults with ADHD go beyond just dopamine. Here's what science is revealing about how regular physical activity can enhance your overall well-being:  

  • Improved attention span and focus: Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that controls executive function and helps you with planning, organising, and focusing. Research (2) indicates that just one session of exercise can greatly enhance your focus and ability to concentrate for longer.  
  • Enhanced cognitive function: Regular exercise increases blood flow to your brain, helping to nourish your brain cells. This can improve cognitive function, memory, and learning, all areas that can struggle with ADHD.  
  • Reduced impulsivity: The restlessness and impulsivity associated with ADHD can be frustrating. Exercise provides a healthy outlet for pent-up energy and can improve impulse control. The focus required during physical activity may also train your brain to better manage impulsive urges.  
  • Stress and anxiety relief: ADHD can often lead to increased stress and anxiety. Exercise boosts the release of endorphins which can help to lower stress, elevate mood and promote feelings of well-being. This can create a calmer, more focused state of mind.  
  • Improved sleep: Many people with ADHD struggle to sleep. Exercising regularly can help regulate your sleep cycle, leading to better and more restful slumber. More sleep equals better focus, improved energy levels, and a boost to your overall wellbeing.  

Finding your exercise flow 

The good news is, you can still feel the benefits without becoming a gym fanatic! The secret is to find exercises that you actually enjoy. This will help you stick to it consistently. Here are some excellent options to consider, catering to different preferences:  

  • Aerobic exercise: Get your heart rate up with activities like brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, or dancing. An achievable aim would be 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise at least five days a week.  
  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Quick, intense exercise with breaks can save you time, whilst providing the same benefits as regular cardio workouts. 
  • Team sports: Playing team sports like basketball, soccer, or volleyball is good for your heart and coordination. The added benefit is that you may meet some new friends. 
  • Martial arts: Activities like karate, taekwondo, or judo combine physical movement with mental discipline. They can improve coordination, self-control, and focus, all essential skills for managing ADHD symptoms.  
  • Mind-body exercises: Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi combine physical postures with mindfulness practices. These can be particularly beneficial for improving focus, reducing stress, and promoting body awareness.  
  • Rock climbing:  A firm favourite activity for all the thrill-seeking dopamine chasers amongst us. This tough activity needs both physical and mental skills, keeping you focused while improving strength and coordination. 

Tailoring exercise to your ADHD: 

  • Sensory sensitivities: If you have sensory sensitivities, choose activities that cater to your preferences. Opt for quiet environments for yoga or solo walks in nature if loud gyms overwhelm you. 
  • Executive function challenges: Planning and organisation can be tricky with ADHD. Create a workout schedule, set reminders, and plan workouts around your energy levels. Use checklists to ensure you have everything you need for your workout. 
  • Embrace technology: There are many different fitness apps available. These can help you track workouts, find new activities, or connect with workout buddies. Utilise technology to simplify exercise routines. Additude have created a useful guide on the best workout apps for ADHD.

Making exercise a habit: tips for success  

Creating an exercise routine that sticks takes dedication and planning. We know this can be challenging so here's some tips to help you make exercise a regular part of your life:

  • Find activities you enjoy: Experiment with different activities until you discover something you find fun and engaging. You're much more likely to persevere if you're enjoying yourself. 
  • Schedule your workouts: Treat your workouts like you would any important appointment. Allocate time in your calendar and stick to it. Don't set unrealistic goals. For example if you usually wake at 9am, don't plan to attend a 7am gym class. 
  • Start small and gradually increase: Start with shorter workouts and gradually build up the duration and intensity once your fitness improves.  
  • Find a workout buddy: Having someone to exercise with can provide motivation, accountability, and make the experience more enjoyable.  
  • Mix it up: ADHD brains can get bored easily. To stop yourself from becoming demotivated, try mixing up the types of exercise you do. This will help keep you on track. 

Ready to get physical? Start building exercise into your life today! 

Remember: It's important to be consistent. Building regular exercise into your life may be challenging at first, but don't let setbacks discourage you. Celebrate your victories, big and small, and focus on making exercise a sustainable part of your life. By staying determined and committed, you'll soon be able to see the benefits of your new habit, as you become a calmer, more energised, more focused you. Good luck! 

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