Why Exercise Helps ADHD

Exercise is one of those things that you know you ‘should’ do, but it is often seen as a luxury activity to be done when everything else on your to list is complete. However, in this video, Dr John Ratey, co-author of the distraction books, Driven to Distraction, Answers to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction, presents compelling evidence why regular exercise is a must for everyone living with ADHD.

“Exercise as a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin’ says Dr Ratey.

While working in Boston, Dr Ratey noticed when runners were injured and forced to stop running they experience problems of depression and ADHD symptoms, such as  difficulty with planning, procrastination and paying attention. He realized that these runners, who had huge success in their careers  had been self-medicating their ADHD with exercise.

Traditionally we think exercise is for our bodies;  however, Dr Ratey says exercise is really for our brains. The physical movement switches our brains ‘on’ and positively affects our executive functions which include:

  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Initiating  action
  • Delaying a reaction
  • Ability to learn from mistakes
  • Sustain focus
  • Working memory

Exercise creates

  • A lot of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which we know is lower in the brains of people with ADHD.
  • BDNF or Brain derived neurotrophic factor,which Dr Ratey affectionately calls, “Miracle Grow For The Brain”, as it keeps our brain cells young.

Besides ADHD, Dr Ratey realized that exercise was a treatment for lots of disorders,  including ones that co-exist with ADHD. For example a study at Duke University found exercise improved our emotions including depression, anxiety and aggression.

Exercise also facilitates learning, as it turns on the attention, motivation and memory system and allows our brain cells to grow and sprout, which is how we learn everything.

Dr Ratey says

“the fitter you are, the better learner you are”

which might in itself be a motivation as adults with ADHD are lifelong learners.

A school in Naperville got their pupils to do 45 minutes of exercise every day. Look at the amazing benefits these children experienced:

Cognitive benefits

Every 4 years countries take a TIMSS test, which stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.  Usually the USA ranks in the low to mid teens. However, the Naperville school took the test as a country and came Number 1 in the world in Science and 6th in Math.

Physical benefits

There was no obesity and only 3% of the children were overweight, at a time when the national average was 35%.

Exercise also helps behavior. At a school in Northern Ontario, there was a class of 25 disruptive pupils.  If they were particularly disruptive they were suspended. Once these pupils started an exercise program the suspension rate went down from 95 days in a semester to just 5 days. In addition, absenteeism went down. The kids were motivated to go to school and participate in class.

Here is the video. Hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to start exercising!!

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  1. Great blog site. Thanks for the articles and other resources.

  2. My family are all swimmers and since I was the only one diagnosed with ADHD and put on dexedrine, I was able to maintain academics, athletics and art every day to encourage my interests to the utmost. I competed as a junior Olympian and now as a much older Masters swimmer has helped me deal with both my parents’ deaths and to take care of a large property. I left off swimming for 50 years and have been back for 4 years relearning all strokes. Being highly ranked in my country is nice but better yet, my social sphere has broadened and I continue to insanely curious about everything especially since I lost my hearing at birth.
    As an ex physio, I know exercise is important- more so if you have ADHD- swimming really mellows me out afterwards and I never need drugs of any kind except a nice glass of wine and excellent food. Lol!Keep on moving and learning!

    • Hi Susan! that is really interesting about swimming making you mellow. After a swim I am always tired…which is one of the reasons I don’t go swimming very often. Even when I was little and learning to swim I remember feeling super tired after a swimming lesson. Hearing about your mellow feeling..made me realize that perhaps my tiredness is normal!

      • Hi Jacqui, being tired after swimming means you have exercised more of your muscles than any other sport, also, cooler or too warm water will sap your endurance. Since you are a runner, walking in shallow water or running will give you more of a workout. Swimming on drills and slower speeds with extreme concentration ( hard for adhd but necc.) will further tire you but in a nice way. Basically all muscles get worked and none will show up as six pack abs lol! It is a great way to end a day with a cuppa and then meditate.

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