5 Reasons Why Exercise May Be the Best Medicine for Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a chronic condition that typically begins in early childhood, and often affects individuals into adult life. The most common explanation behind why an individual may have ADHD is genetics, specifically related to a dopamine transporter gene, and, in some cases, due to external effects such as toxic exposure in childhood (such as excess contact with lead), and alcohol/tobacco use during pregnancy. Common symptoms of ADHD include hyperactivity, fidgeting, impulsivity, difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, anxiety, and more. As the diagnosis of ADHD has increased by about 30% in the past eight years (Blue Cross Blue Shield, 2019), there has been increased research regarding potential ways to manage symptoms. While pharmaceutical and behavioral treatments for ADHD have been heavily emphasized in recent years, the many positive effects exercise has on individuals with ADHD seem to have been extremely undervalued.
Here are five of the major ways exercise has been found to help individuals with ADHD:
1.) A review of the literature concluded that physical activity for individuals with ADHD aids in the management of cognitive, behavioral, and physical ADHD symptoms (Ng et al. 2017). More than 29 studies were performed that explored the short and long-term effects of various physical activities for individuals with ADHD. Exercise, especially moderate to intense aerobic exercise, was found to be extremely beneficial for holistically treating ADHD symptoms in adolescents.
2.) Many forms of cardio have been found to help individuals with ADHD with issues related to executive functions such as working memory, flexible thinking, and planning (Den Heijer et al, 2017). Having trouble with executive functions is one of the common symptoms of ADHD and includes poor response time and impulsivity. By improving executive functions, many symptoms dissipate. Additionally, cardio is found to alleviate attention and behavior issues in ADHD patients. Treating ADHD with cardio has been found to be beneficial to both children and adults with ADHD. Many of the cardio exercises involved running for 30 minutes each day for 3 – 5 days each week. Major benefits were seen after eight weeks (for kids between grades 4-8) but reading comprehension was improved after just one single 20 min walk on a treadmill at 60% of the child’s (average age about 10) maximum heart rate.
3.) Exercise activates dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems, which stimulate the production of psychostimulants. In simpler terms, exercise is an effective treatment for ADHD by acting in similar ways as medications such as Adderall, Dexedrine, and more. However, unlike these medications, exercise does not have as many negative side effects such as insomnia, nervousness, and digestion issues (Wigal et al. 2013). In fact, exercise may actually prevent these issues through its other proven benefits.
4.) Aerobic exercise has been proven to enhance arithmetic skills in children with ADHD (Mehren et al, 2020). In a Canadian study, children's spelling accuracy and reaction times were found to be much higher post-exercise than before they were before the activity. Considering half of the children diagnosed with ADHD are also found to have dyslexia, a disorder involving difficulty with reading and interpreting words, this finding is especially profound.
5.) Exercise improves fine motor skills (Vysniauske et al. 2020). Children with ADHD have been found to have poorer fine motor skills (intricate movement of muscles needed to complete tasks like writing) than children living without the disorder. Exercise has been found to have a positive impact on motor skills in children with ADHD, particularly, improved hand-eye coordination. This is important as the improvement of fine motor skills can help build confidence in children that are struggling, helping foster their mental growth early in life.
Conclusion: Considering all of the benefits exercises provide for individuals with ADHD, it's no surprise many well-known athletes have this disorder: Shaquille O-Neal, Simone Biles, and Tim Howard to name a few. While minimizing screen time, getting academic accommodations, and building organizational skills are all helpful mechanisms to manage ADHD, it’s important to explore potential tools to make symptoms as negligible as possible. Hence, exercise may be a great addition to help lessen ADHD symptoms. As with any other medical condition, it is important to talk with your medical professional before you start any exercise regime.
Key Takeaway: Exercise is great medicine for ADHD.
Written by Nicky Lonsway and edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD
● Blue Cross Blue Shield, 2019. Blue Cross Blue Shield Association Study Shows a More Than 30 Percent Increase in ADHD Diagnoses Among Children.
● Den Heijer AE, Groen Y, Tucha L, Fuermaier AB, Koerts J, Lange KW, Thome J, Tucha O. Sweat it out? The effects of physical exercise on cognition and behavior in children and adults with ADHD: a systematic literature review. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2017 Feb;124(Suppl 1):3-26.
● Mehren A, Reichert M, Coghill D, Müller HHO, Braun N, Philipsen A. Physical exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - evidence and implications for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder Emot Dysregul. 2020 Jan 6;7:1.
● Ng QX, Ho CYX, Chan HW, Yong BZJ, Yeo WS. Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complement Ther Med. 2017 Oct;34:123-128.
● Vysniauske R, Verburgh L, Oosterlaan J, Molendijk ML. The Effects of Physical Exercise on Functional Outcomes in the Treatment of ADHD: A Meta-Analysis. J Atten Disord. 2020 Mar;24(5):644-654.
● Wigal SB, Emmerson N, Gehricke JG, Galassetti P. Exercise: applications to childhood ADHD. J Atten Disord. 2013 May;17(4):279-90.