Back to Basics Part 3: Exercise
Updated: Feb 27
We are all aware of the myriad benefits that exercise provides our body. Among the top scientifically proven advantages are weight control, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, lowering blood pressure, improved immune function and strengthening bones and muscles. However, lesser known, are the powerful positive impact that exercise has on the brain and for those with ADHD in particular, the benefits are especially remarkable.
In a recent survey in ADDitude magazine, Exercise is ranked as the most effective ADHD treatment by both caregivers and adults (Additudemag.com, 2017).
Exercise as a cognitive enhancer and the foundation of excellent brain health is strongly supported by scientific research. As John Ratey, MD Harvard Professor and author of SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise on the Brain, explains “Exercise has a similar therapeutic affect to taking both Ritalin (ADHD medication) and Prozac (antidepressant) together.” Many of Dr. Ratey’s patients report that their physical fitness routine is their personal secret for sustained concentration and enhanced productivity academically and/or professionally. For example, one college age client of Dr. Ratey reported scheduling all his classes in the morning following a morning run. He would arrive at class often sweaty in his gym shorts and sneakers; Nonetheless, this was his secret to sustained focus, mental clarity and overall academic success.
So, what exactly is happening on a neurological level when we exercise to produce such profound results? For starters, exercise increases heart rate which in turn promotes increased blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain. Oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients carried by the blood are critical for optimal brain function. Poor brain circulation causes brain fog, fatigue, and stress. On the other hand, more blood flow increases energy and oxygen and our brain’s overall performance.
In addition, when we exercise our brain releases important chemicals called neurotransmitter which function as messengers delivering signals in the brain. Physical activity enhances levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. In individuals with ADHD, these specific brain chemicals are in shorter supply or may not be as readily absorbed.
So, in actuality, exercise naturally counteracts the ADHD at the neurological level.
After a walk, run, swim or other physical activity individuals experience significantly improved concentration, planning, and organizing ability, reduced hyperactivity, and better self-regulation-all typical ADHD challenges.
Here is just a sampling of evidence supporting physical activity as a cognitive enhancer. Four public elementary schools in the Fort Worth, Texas area recently adopted a program allowing recess four times throughout the school day. Initially, teachers were reluctant expressing their concerns. “There was a part of me that was very nervous about it,” said Donna McBride, a first-grade teacher at a participating school. “I was trying to wrap my head around my class going outside four times a day and still being able to teach those children all the things they needed to learn.” The results they have seen are quite the opposite.
Students are more focused, less fidgety, exhibit better problem-solving skills and stronger self-discipline.
With such incredible results, the program has expanded to other Texas schools as well as Kansas and Ohio (Today.com, 2016). Similarly, a morning physical fitness regimen was instituted in Naperville Central High School outside Chicago. Participating students demonstrated remarkable improvements in academic performance. Another interesting study, in 2017 conducted by Stanford University illustrated a spike in creativity in students who walked around a track prior to engaging in creative pursuits.
Further, those with ADHD commonly experience stress, anxiety, and overwhelm more acutely than their neurotypical peers and physical activity remedies these symptoms as well. Exercise boosts the level of endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for pleasure, pain relief, and an overall positive feeling.
The endorphins combined with serotonin and dopamine, other “happy chemicals” enhance mood, strengthen, motivation, relieve stress, and benefit overall productivity.
Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep is another common ADHD challenge. Engaging in physical activity during the day solves this problem as well. Since exercise promotes greater ease falling asleep and deeper more restful sleep.
The impact of exercise on ADHD we have discussed so far can be experienced from a single exercise session. However, there are other significant benefits accrued for the brain over the long term. While it was previously mentioned that exercise boosts neurotransmitters in the brain and has tremendous positive effects on learning in the short term.
Over time, regular exercise, increases the baseline levels of these brain chemicals critical to learning and executive function skills (SPARK, Dr. John Ratey, 2008).
Also, many individuals with ADHD struggle with working memory and over time aerobic exercise promotes growth in the area of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus. A study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed significant memory improvements in participants who engaged in regular aerobic activity for a 6 week period (psycologytoday.com, 2018). Numerous other scientific studies support this conclusion as well. Another extremely powerful benefit of physical fitness for the brain is that is literally makes your brain grow bigger. Healthy individuals who participated in a 6 month aerobic exercise program, showed marked growth of both the white and gray matter of the brain.
Similarly, a large scale Swedish study of over one million men showed a direct link between improved cardiovascular health and IQ. So, exercise may even make us smarter! (Brainflux.com, 2018)
To reap the rewards of exercise, a few questions remain - What type? How often? and what intensity? Any physical activity that you enjoy and fits your lifestyle will have a positive impact. The most common choices are walking briskly, running, biking, or swimming. However, if you’re a fan of rock climbing, dance, gymnastics, boating, or hiking- go ahead. While any physical activity is great for your brain, experts have noticed a connection between the complexity of the exercise and its positive impact on the brain. The martial arts and yoga and in particular are especially impactful for ADHD. Also, team sports can be a great choice because they have the added bonus of a social group to keep you committed. As far as frequency, strive for at least 30 minutes 3-4 days a week. The activity should be moderately intense, which means your heartrate should increase and you should be breathing a little heavier. Even short bouts of exercise like climbing a few flights of stairs, a set of push-ups, or jumping jacks will “reboot” your brain and increase focus and mental clarity. Whatever you choose, the key to sustaining an exercise program is choosing an activity that is fun and appeals to you.