Exercise Benefits Unique to ADHD: Four Powerful Ways To Stay Active and Boost Your Focus with ADHD

Have you ever gone for a quick walk around the block and returned feeling mentally sharper?  Movement and regular physical exercise strengthen the brain so that you think and focus more clearly.  

Perhaps you’ve experienced the “exercise high” you get after vigorous physical activity. This is the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers that transmit messages between neurons.  Endorphins assist in relieving stress.  

Physical activity helps regulate our stress hormones, smoothing out our reactions to triggering situations. 


ADHD and Exercise 

Regular exercise boosts the ADHD brain’s performance by increasing neurotransmitter levels, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which influence motivation, attention, and focus, and serotonin levels, which regulate mood, appetite, and sleep cycles.


As these chemical messengers transmit more and more information between neurons, the connections between these neurons become more fluid, allowing for a more even and complete transmission of messages in the brain.  

Dr. John Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard, who has written extensively on exercise and the brain, identified the release of a protein when you get your heart rate going, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which he calls “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” This is because BDNF encourages the new growth of neurons as well as the connection of existing neurons which aids in regulating focus and attention. (E. Hallowell and J. Ratey, ADHD 2.0). 

This increased capacity to self-regulate that comes from exercise expedites executive functioning - the ability to plan, focus attention, remember, and organize. 

Now that you know how exercise benefits the ADHD brain -

Here are four powerful ways to stay active, motivated, and focused when you live with ADHD. 


Get Up and Move 

It can be tough to fit exercise in your busy schedule and you may find you don’t have time to devote to a continuous exercise routine.


Still, chronic sitting and inactivity slows down your metabolic functioning, negatively impacts your satiety hormone leptin (that tells you when you’re hungry), puts your muscles in a dormant state, and wreaks havoc on attention and focus. 


Quick Tips:

• Use the Pomodoro method to break up your day: Try a 25-minute segment for work, with a 10-minute break to get in some physical activity (one Pomodoro). Walk around the office or outside (which you can also accomplish while you’re talking on the phone in a meeting). After three Pomodoro’s, you can also take a longer 30-minute break for physical activity.
Take a two-minute break from your desk to climb stairs, walk around, or get outside. A 2015 study out of the University of Utah showed that even for light activity such as walking for two minutes every hour, you can have a 33 percent lower chance of dying! (Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp).  

Stay Consistent   


Regular movement and exercise lay the foundation for brain function, such as creative problem-solving and improved processing skills.


Studie(s) have shown substantial and consistent improvement in cognitive functioning following long-term exercise for individuals with ADHD.  

Quick Tips:
• If you’re already exercising, vary what you do. The ADHD brain loves the novelty of something new, so mix it up. Your body will thank you when you get your heart rate up, while also maintaining muscle mass.  
Find your time-tested sweet spot. Some individuals like to get moving before their medication starts taking effect in the morning. It starts your day off with more focused attention. Stack your exercise routine onto something you already do as a habit, such as right after you brush your teeth.
Get moving on your way home from work. Some individuals find that exercise in the late afternoon or evening helps them focus better later in the day once their meds have worn off and can help them sleep better.
• Identify what you need to get moving that’s your “point of no turning back.” For example, once your running shoes are laced up, you’re pumped to get out the door for a run.
• Have regular homes for what you need. For example, your running shoes, workout clothes, helmet, or skateboard have regular homes, so you don’t lose momentum searching for them.  
Connect with a partner or trainer. Having a friend to walk with or a teacher or trainer to meet with can make a huge difference because you don't want to let your friend down, and you know your teacher or trainer is counting on your being there. 

Choose Your Optimal Exercise(s)

Doctors recommend aerobic activity for at least twenty minutes a day. The more complex the physical activity, the better it is for your brain. 
Quick Tips:
Studies show that aerobic exercise benefits cognitive functioning for individuals with ADHD. These are activities such as jogging, swimming, bicycling, hiking, or brisk walking
Complex physical activities where you need to control, adjust, and balance the body with technical movement, focus, and concentration, where there are consequences for your actions, are excellent for enhancing the ADHD brain.  These are activities such as martial arts, rock climbing, gymnastics, skateboarding, yoga, or dance.
Strength training offers cognitive benefits as well, such as weight-lifting, push-ups, or squats, but not enough on their own. It’s best to combine strength training with aerobics and/or complex physical activities. 

Don't Overdo It

Now that you’ve found your ideal exercise and routine, there can be a tendency to get wildly into it that you hyperfocus on your physical exercise and overdo it.

Although there are many benefits to exercising for the ADHD brain, there can also be negative results for exercising too much. You may experience an increased heart rate, that could damage your heart. Over-exercising can also lead to injury, breakdown of muscles, and a compromised immune system. 


Quick Tips:
• If you notice you’re exercising a ton and you’re having trouble sleeping, your body could be producing cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This is a sign that you may be exercising too much. Take a rest from exercising for a few days and see if that helps. 
• When your body is sore this is also a sign you may need to cut back.
• You may be using exercise to achieve the perfect body or reach the perfect fitness level so you can ace your position on your team. While you “know” there is no perfect, change can be tough. Consider seeking help to improve your body image and aim for “good enough” so you can stay focused on other areas in your life that are most important to you.
To summarize, to power up your exercise so you can stay sharp, motivated, and focused when you live with ADHD:

• Get Up and Move

• Stay Consistent 

• Choose Your Optimal Exercise

• Don't Overdo It

Try these ideas and let me know how they work for you! 




 PS. Need more assistance with staying on track with your routines? 

Contact me for an ADHD Strategy Assessment and we can talk about some steps you can put into place now!


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