Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Get Them Moving: Exercise as an Important Component of ADHD Treatment

Filed under:
ADHD Exercise
Written by:
Melanie Reader, B.Sc. (Hons). MSc., Registered Psychologist
Manager, Psychological Services & Programs
Aug. 21, 2019

And research supports that regular exercise has numerous benefits:

  • stress reduction
  • general improvements in health (including in blood pressure)
  • weight management
  • lessening anxious and depressive symptoms.

As a scientist-practitioner, I cannot deny the supporting data showing the benefits of exercise for individuals with ADHD. When we engage in any exercise, beneficial brain chemicals are increased. Whether we are walking, running, or going to the gym, our brains release endorphins. Endorphins are important brain chemicals that help to regulate mood, pleasure, and pain. Additionally, the brain chemicals that affect focus and attention – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – are also increased. For individuals with ADHD, these chemicals, which are called neurotransmitters, are lower than normal. Medications to treat ADHD increase these chemicals in the brain. Exercise does the same, although to a lesser degree.

Exercise has been shown to decrease the severity of ADHD. That is, it can lessen the expression of ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity. Exercise can also enhance cognitive functioning, including working memory. Executive functions such as the goal-oriented skills needed to plan and organize, cognitive flexibility and inhibition are also improved. Research has shown that this, in turn, leads to improvements in achievement in reading and math, which is likely because exercise also increases a protein in the brain involved in learning and memory. This protein helps children to engage more readily in trying tasks that they may have originally given up on (i.e., due to learned helplessness which evolves from the thought of failure).

While exercise does not show the same significant effect as the use of ADHD medication, it is a lifestyle activity that families can easily integrate into their children’s and their own lives. If possible, it is beneficial to get the kids moving in the mornings prior to school to increase their concentration and ready their brains for learning. Of course, with any lifestyle change, it has to work with the family’s schedule and allow the child to be at their best in other areas of their life. Consider walking or biking to school if this is appropriate for your family. After school, allow for time for re-energizing after being in the class (or office!) all day. Send the kids out to the backyard to jump on the trampoline, next door to the local playground, or take a family bike ride together after dinner. Many kids with learning and attention challenges, including ADHD, are mentally drained from putting out so much effort during the day. They not only have to make it through their academic tasks but also have to “keep it together” emotionally. This is why they may arrive at home and just ‘fall apart.’ They do not have any energy left to help them in regulating their emotions, behaviours, or thoughts. Exercise is one way that can help to refuel their tanks.

It is important to recognize that many kids with learning and attention challenges find team or competitive sports challenging. There are a variety of reasons for this – difficulty managing all the rules, physical coordination challenges, difficulty following all of the social interactions, and trouble keeping up with the pace of the game are just a few of the common reasons shared. These difficulties also lead to a great dislike of gym class! Consider less stressful options that may pull on your child’s interest while getting him active. Summer is a great time to try out some new activity options. Here are just some activity options to consider:

  • golf
  • Ultimate Frisbee
  • water sports
  • hiking
  • biking
  • rock climbing
  • rollerblading
  • playing ball sports in the backyard
  • jumping ropes
  • swinging hula-hoops.

Research does suggest that more complex or physically active games are best for children with ADHD. These activities integrate a number of different cognitive skills (e.g., impulse control, motor skills, memory, perceptual (or visual) skills)) with the physical activity. Some examples include martial arts (like Tae Kwon Do), ballet, and gymnastics.

Parents can also advocate for the continued inclusion of exercise in schools. Even though exercise clearly plays an important role in maximizing in-class time, school programs are often underfunded and the first to be eliminated when there are budgetary constraints. There are many things that schools can do to incorporate movement and body breaks into the school day in addition to what happens during gym class. The whole class can take regulation breaks to engage in jumping jacks or dancing while individual students needing movement breaks can deliver a note to the office, go for a drink from the water fountain, or even pace at the back of the classroom. Some schools are even adding stationary bikes into classrooms to help students with learning and attention issues. At the very least, recess should never be eliminated. Research clearly indicates that the recess break allows kids to refresh so that they are better equipped to continue with their learning in the classroom. Children with ADHD especially need this brain and movement break to improve their attention, working memory and mood.

In the end, REMEMBER: The first-line, evidence-based treatments for ADHD are stimulant medications and behavioural strategies, with best outcomes shown when these are used in combination. Exercise can contribute to overall well-being and can help increase these outcomes.  By helping children to connect with a fitness activity they enjoy, it is more likely that exercise will become a habit that they will continue to engage in as they age. They will then have a positive coping strategy in place in moving forward to support them in building their self-regulation skills.