What Types of Exercises Are Best for ADHD?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

We have talked about the importance of exercise for managing ADHD symptoms in the past: Can Exercise Help ADHD Symptoms?, Dr. John Ratey Discusses Exercise and ADHD in New Book, and Beginning an Exercise Program for People with ADHD. We know that exercise helps to ward off depression and anxiety. We know that exercise helps us focus. Research has shown that adding exercise into the school day helps to improve academic performance.

But are there specific exercises that are better than others to help reduce and manage ADHD symptoms?

How Exercise Helps

According to Dr. Ratey, exercise raises the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains, similar to what stimulant medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall do. Exercise also improves executive function, helping you to make better decisions and to slow down impulsivity. It decreases feelings of restlessness.

Those with ADHD often have trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep. Poor sleeping habits have been shown to decrease focus. A survey completed by the National Sleep Foundation showed that exercise helps in this area as well. "People who sleep better report exercising more and people who exercise tend to sleep better." [Buman, Huffington Post]
While the benefits of exercise on sleep directly improved based on the level of exercise, even those who classified themselves as "light exercisers" indicated that sleep was better than those who did not exercise at all.

What Exercises Are Best

Aerobic exercises help to boost neurotransmitter production, help increase new cell growth
the brain and can improve executive function. Some examples of aerobic exercises are:

  • Running

  • Biking

  • Swimming

  • Walking

  • Rowing

  • Jumping Rope

In a previous post, Terry Matlen provided some tips based on her email conversation with Dr. Ratey. She explained that you may notice changes in your brain quickly - often in just a few days - and even if you stop exercising and then begin again, your brain will bounce right back. One suggestion is to start with a low-impact exercise, such as walking, until you can comfortably walk for about an hour. Once you can do that, increase your pace to jogging and then to running.

Complex exercises that use both physical activity and require a skill help to improve the formation of synaptic networks in the brain. These types of activities include

Some exercises combine both skills and aerobic exercise, such as tennis or skateboarding.

Dr. Ratey suggests committing to about 6 hours of exercise a week. You can break this up by doing high intensity workouts two days a week and moderate intensity for four days each week. But he also stresses that the type of exercise isn't as important as getting involved in some type of physical activity.

The best way is to make sure you have some motivation to continue. For parents, look for something your child is interested in and enjoys. For some this may be team sports, for others the individual sports, such as martial arts, is better. Some people with ADHD find that team sports gives the structure and accountability they need to keep up with regular exercise. Others find the solitude of running helps relax them and slow down their minds. Finding what works best for you will help you maintain a regular exercise schedule.


"ADHD, Medication and Exercise," 2009, Oct. 14, Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D., MentalHelp.net

"Exercise May Lead to Better School Performance for Kids with ADHD," 2012, Oct. 16, Andy McClashen, Matthew Pontifex, Michigan State University

"Sleep and Exercise: Vigorous Exercisers Report the Best Sleep, Poll Says," 2013, March 4, Sarah Klein, Huffington Post

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.