Dr. John Ratey Discusses Exercise and ADHD in New Book

by Terry Matlen Patient Expert

One of the perks in my line of work is getting lots of packages in the mail from publishers who want me to review the latest books on ADHD. Recently, Dr. John Ratey, co-author of Driven to Distraction, and author of other important works, sent me a copy of his newest book, "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain". We'd recently had an interesting email exchange about exercise and its positive effects on ADHD. Though I haven't read it yet, Spark has gotten rave reviews. So until I can crack open that book, I reviewed our email exchange and read a bunch of articles about the book that led him to write what most likely will be a classic in the field.

In our virtual "chats", 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.

Says 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."

In fact, Spark isn't only about exercise and how it improves ADHD, stress, depression and anxiety symptoms; chapters include information on addiction, hormonal changes and aging, as well.

How did this book come about? Dr. Ratey heard about a Physical Education project in Naperville, IL schools where all students were exercising daily. Not surprising, few of the students were found to be overweight. In studying these children, Dr. Ratey found something even more interesting- the exercise was improving the student's ability to learn. Until then, most research on the benefits of exercise focused on seniors' health. Now, it became clear that exercise helped not only children, but people of all ages who struggled with more than just weight and obvious health issues; but with psychiatric and other challenges.

Some of the things Dr. Ratey discovered:

  • Exercise increases brain-cell production in the hippocampus; the brain's center for memory and learning. Thus, it improves cognition.

  • Exercise combats stress hormones and helps in the production of antioxidants.

  • Exercise improves anxiety, panic and worry almost as fast as medications.

  • If you move your body, it tricks the brain into coming out of hibernation and reduces symptoms of depression.

  • Exercise boosts norepinephrine and dopamine, which are exactly what ADHD medications target.

  • Exercise staves off addiction cravings. For smokers trying to quit, 5 minutes can help with the associated irritability.

  • Women report significant improvement of PMS symptoms.

  • Those over 60 who exercise regularly at 60 to 70 percent of their maximum heart rate led to a size increase of the brain's cortex.

Many find starting an exercise routine to be nearly impossible. But for those with ADHD, it's imperative. Dr. Ratey states that for those with ADHD, exercise will increase focus and decrease impulsivity; there is less of a need to fidget and move; and there is increased mental clarity and focus.

Here are some exercise tips from Dr. Ratey:

  1. Commit to six hours a week: do some form of aerobic exercise six days a week, for 45 minutes to an hour. Four days should be on the longer side, at moderate intensity, and two on the shorter side, at high intensity, but don't do it back to back; your body and brain need to rest.

  2. Types of exercise include low-intensity (walking); moderate (jogging); high (running).

  3. Start your exercise regime by walking, with a goal of 10,000 steps a day (about five miles). Once you work up to an hour of walking (without feeling too winded to be able to converse with a walking partner), increase your pace to moderate and then to high-intensity. (Details on how to differentiate between the different intensities can be found in the book).

  4. If you only have 20 minutes to exercise, do a moderate work-out with intervals of sprints.

Dr. Ratey explains that if you miss a few days or even a week or so, your brain will respond again quickly- as soon as the second day back on track. He also recommends exercising in the morning, though evening workouts are equally good.

Whatever time or type of exercise you choose, there's one main thing to remember. As the commercial so aptly expresses it, "just do it."

*Note: always check with your physician before beginning an exercise program

Terry Matlen
Meet Our Writer
Terry Matlen

Terry wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for ADHD.