According to a number of recent studies, exercise, especially if it’s aerobic, can reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers are still working to identify the exact causes of ADHD, but it is generally thought to be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain.
Scientists think that ADHD symptoms are caused by a deficiency in the chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine, which “play essential roles in thinking and attention,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Stimulant medications are effective because they increase these chemicals, therefore reducing ADHD symptoms and increasing an individual’s ability to focus. Exercise increases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels in the brain, which means exercise can have the same effect on the brain as stimulant medications.
In recent years, a number of studies have backed up the idea that exercise helps decrease ADHD symptoms.
A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in 2015 looked specifically at the effects of aerobic exercise on children with ADHD. Children were enrolled in a before-school exercise program for 12 weeks. Parents and teachers provided ratings of ADHD symptoms, including inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity as well as ratings for oppositional behavior, moodiness, and social interactions. At the end of the trial, researchers noted reduced impairment at school and at home. Betsy Hoza, the lead researcher believes the study showed that before-school exercise could be a way of managing ADHD symptoms.
A study published in Current Psychiatry Reports indicated that sustained exercise programs benefited children with ADHD, specifically by enhancing neural growth and development, and improving cognitive and behavioral functioning. Executive functioning skills, which are often difficult for people with ADHD, were found to improve after exercise.
Another study assigned some students to a nine-month after school physical activity program. Other students were placed on a waitlist as a control group. The researchers found that students who actively participated in the physical activity program had better results on cognitive performance and had better brain function on tasks requiring executive function skills.
Dr. John Ratey, M.D., the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” has advocated for exercise as a supplemental treatment for ADHD. Dr. Ratey discussed the study with Medscape Medical News and reported there have also been research in Taiwan and China supporting exercise for children with ADHD.
The study from China also found that balance training might be of benefit. Dr. Ratey explains that exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which in turn decrease ADHD symptoms. "It also raises serotonin and all these other factors in the brain that really make for a nice recipe for an exercise pill, if we had such a thing," Dr. Ratey said.
Besides improving cognitive functioning and executive functioning skills, exercise helps by:
- Decreasing restless energy
- Lowering stress levels
- Improving concentration
In the studies, researchers mostly used aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling, and using elliptical machines, because this type of activity is known to increase the neurotransmitters in the brain.
Yoga might also help. In a review of studies, yoga was found to be effective as a supplemental or alternative therapy, with similar results as biofeedback or relaxation training for those with ADHD.
One of the major differences between exercise and medication in treating and managing ADHD symptoms is that the benefits from exercise are short-lived. It is recommended that a person continues to exercise to maintain benefits, and unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to stop what you are doing every hour or two to engage in aerobic exercise. However, building exercise into your everyday routine at a time that works for you can help to keep you consistent.