Can Exercise Help ADHD Symptoms?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

What would you say if there was one thing you could do that would help to improve symptoms of ADHD: decrease impulsivity, increase attention, help you focus better, improve your mood, make you healthier overall and this thing didn't cost any money and didn't have any side effects? Most people would eagerly say "sign me up"

Well, this is exactly what exercise can do for you. Terry Matlen previously wrote about Dr. John Ratey's book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and his research into the subject of ADHD and exercise. According to Dr. Ratey, "Exercise is the single most popular tool we have to optimize our brain function... exercise not only makes us smarter; it also makes us less stressed, depressed and anxious."

What Exercise Does for Us

We all know that exercise is important to maintaining a healthy body. It helps to keep our heart and muscles healthy and working properly. It helps us combat physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and improves blood circulation. Exercise has been found to fight diseases such as osteoporosis and diabetes. It helps you to maintain your weight.

But in addition to these physical benefits, exercise specifically helps people with ADHD by:

  • Improves executive functioning abilities, such as memory, sequencing, planning and prioritizing.

  • Increases attention and focus

  • Decreases hyperactivity and impulsiveness

  • Increasing alertness

  • Decreasing the craving for new stimuli

  • Increase motivation

  • Improve mood, for example decreasing feelings of depression and anxiety

Regular exercise also improves sleep, a major problem for many individuals with ADHD, helps to increase appetite (often a problem when taking stimulant medication) and maintain weight.

Why Exercise Helps

When we exercise, the chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels in the brain are increased. People with ADHD are known to have lower levels of these chemicals. Stimulant medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin, boost the levels of these chemicals. In that way, exercise works much like a stimulant medication. Although most people will find that exercise is a great addition to their ADHD treatment, some people have actually replaced medication with exercise.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

According to Terry Matlen, "Dr. Ratey expressed openly his passion about the benefits of even moderate exercise; one doesn't have to run 5 miles a day to see improvements in attention, energy levels and mood. Even brisk walks around the block can help. John mentioned that the type of exercise done does make a difference, though, and explained that exercise that required thinking/strategy, like martial arts, for example, would offer added benefits."

What Types of Exercise Should I Do?

Joining a gym or working with a personal trainer are great ways to start an exercise program, there are plenty of ways you can increase your activity level:

  • Take a walk everyday

  • Rollerblade (great for having the kids join in and creating a new "family activity")

  • Join a dance or martial arts class

  • Jogging

  • Ride a bike

  • Hike

  • Swim

  • Weight training

  • Yoga

  • Use work out DVDs (or find a video on YouTube)

The important thing, is not the type of exercise, but that you begin to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Start small, begin with 10 minutes several times per week and work yourself up to at least 30 minutes four to five times per week.

Because people with ADHD get bored often, you may want to make your exercise program varied and interesting. For example, you might want to take a walk a couple days per week (and vary the places you take a walk) and ride a bike or swim a few days per week. Keeping it interesting and fresh will increase the chances of continuing your new exercise program.

You should always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, especially if you have a history of heart disease or any other illness that may interfere with your ability to exercise.


"ADD / ADHD Treatment and Help", Reviewed 2010, Feb, Jocelyn Block, M.A., and Melinda Smith, M.A.,

"Dr. John Ratey Discusses Exercise and ADHD in New Book", 2008, March 27, Terry Matlen,

"Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity", 2009, July 25, Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic

"Exercise: An Alternative ADHD Treatment Without Side Effects", 2008 December/January, Additude Magazine Editors, Additude Magazine

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.