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Does Exercise Help ADHD?

Updated: Feb 22

Does Exercise Help With ADHD?

Does Exercise help with ADHD

Does exercise help ADHD? YES! The answer is yes! Exercise helps ADHD! So what does "help" mean in this case? Exercise helps ADHD in that it helps the ADHD brain with many symptoms of ADHD such as brain fog, restlessness, anxiety, forgetfulness, working memory, timing, impulsivity, executive functioning and many others could be easily listed. Exercise can be a tool to treat symptoms of ADHD in a similar way medication does if used daily and periodically throughout the day. In this Article Matt Sloan of Sensory Fitness The How, What and Why of how exercises benefits people with ADHD

Why does exercise help ADHD?

Why? Why does exercise help ADHD? Well, let's look at the root of ADHD to gain some understanding. ADHD is a complicated developmental disorder so let's simplify it a bit. Having ADHD means having difficulty transferring dopa from one neuron to the next. Dopa is a building block for neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Both of these neurotransmitters are extremely important for everyday functioning.

Dopamine is a "feel good" chemical

Dopamine is a "feel good" chemical. It's what helps us organize our thoughts. It helps us with:

  • organizing

  • emotional regulation

  • executive functioning

  • movement

  • sleep

  • working memory

Norepinephrine is a "get up and go" chemical

Norepinephrine is a "get up and go" chemical. It's what helps you wake up in the morning. Think of your starter in your car. It helps us with:

  • waking up

  • emotional regulation

  • staying motivated during tasks you may not like

  • executive functioning

  • processess sensory input

  • working memory

To name a few for both.

In the neuro-typical brain these chemical transmissions are as dependable as London transportation. In the ADHD brain these chemicals are more like NJ transit (I'm from Jersey. I'm allowed to say that). Think of a dropper filled with liquid. You know when you squeeze the dropper, some of the liquid gets sucked back in and you have to squeeze it a few times to get out all the liquid and even then there is always some left over in the dropper? So annoying. The dropper is the the ADHD neuron and the liquid is dopa. We (I say we because I'm on team ADHD) can't transmit enough of these chemicals from one neuron to the next. And that's when the list of symptoms above kick in.

How Does Exercise Help ADHD?

So how does someone with ADHD squeeze out the dropper fully? Exercise! This is how exercise can help symptoms of ADHD. Exercise is a broad term that covers quite a bit. Google's definition of exercise is "activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness". Let's not worry about the "health and fitness" part right now. Let's focus on "physical effort". More specifically, heavy work. Heavy work is moving weight with your muscles just enough that requires a bit more effort than usual. Do that enough and you now take the squeezy bit off the dropper and all the liquid flows out like a waterfall. We are doing heavy work to get the neurons to act like firehoses instead of droppers to flood the brain with chemicals us ADHD folk have trouble transmitting.

Heavy work is moving weight. Moving weight could mean using equipment you would find in the gym like free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, etc. Don't go to the gym or have weights at home? That's OK, doing body weight stuff like pushups, free squats (doing squats or lunges with no weights), sit ups are still resistive. If this is not an option for you then taking a walk/run can work, however it takes a bit longer to get the heart rate up and match that same intensity to release enough dopa. So this is where perhaps you wear a weighted vest, or load up your backpack with books, or rocks, or leftover meatloaf. Anything you can think of to add resistance to an activity. 5 to 10 min of heavy work (depending on the person, weight, and intensity) can help the ADHD brain for up to 2 hours. Like medication but in shorter spurts! So making sure to schedule movement breaks throughout the day is crucial. For me personally, I prefer to start my day off with exercise and then a movement break after lunch when I get brain fog after a meal. Also, if I'm about to do something extremely un-motivating like finances, going to to the grocery store (sensory overload!), or anything I really don't want to do but know it has to get done. So finding the time of day that works can really make a difference but in the end making sure that movement breaks are a part of your day can be a wonderful tool to help you manage your ADHD.

I'm not saying you have to go to the gym everyday or multiple times a day. But finding the time to do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Or so Teddy Roosevelt would say. So play around with some of these principles:

Free weights: Dead weight like dumbells, med balls, stacking boxes, shoveling dirt, etc. Anything I can pick up, push, or pull. Work at a desk? Stack books on your lap and push your office chair around the office for a bit. Maybe give a co-worker a ride. Talk to HR first before trying that one though.

Resistance: Kind of redundant in that all weight is resistive but what I mean is resistance bands. Things that I pull and they pull back. Or even compression. Things that I push and they push back. Think squeezing a partially deflated football or pushing down on a BOSU or yoga ball. Think of the difference you feel when pulling something like a row machine compared to pulling on a resistance band. When you reach that isometric hold it excites the nervous system a little bit more than just pulling that dead weight on the machine. So a bit more bang for your buck. Keep a few resistance bands in your work drawer and put them around your knees to pull while filing those insurance claims all day.

Body weight: Pushups, pull-ups, free squats. Anything where I'm using my body to push, pull, climb, crawl. Even walking up and down stairs is more heavy than going for a walk on a flat surface. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Or better yet, race the co-workers getting on the elevator by running up the stairs. Even if you lose, you still win!

Uneven surfaces: So this is a bit of a weird one but think of doing squats on something like a BOSU. It's not stable but stable enough to do a squat. It is uneven and requires a bit more effort to stay balanced. Doing lunges on pillow that is on the ground (please be careful of ankle rolls!), or sit ups on a yoga ball. Anything where I'm doing something on an uneven surface promotes that much more muscle recruitment to keep you balanced. Which is just more heavy work in the end. Talk coworkers to lay on the ground shoulder to shoulder and crawl across them. Please don't do this. This is just a joke. But if you do somehow pull this off please send me the video.

So this is how exercise can help ADHD. To be more specific, heavy work. Anytime you do any movement you're getting all the benefits of exercise for your body and your brain. Now you can be a bit more intentional about the exercises you choose. And remember, exercise is not only to strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles but it's also for brain health. Especially if you are someone on the ADHD spectrum. Taking the time to find a way to work in exercise into your daily life is important for everyone on the planet. But for those of us with ADHD it is crucial we incorporate movement into our daily life on a daily basis, multiple times a day. You don't need to bust out the headbands and break a sweat every time but getting that intentional movement somehow can really make a difference in how you feel on a daily basis.

ADHD is an extremely complicated developmental disorder and a simple way to look at it is difficulty with dopa transfer and using heavy work to help with that transfer. As far as treating ADHD, although exercise is an extremely important tool, it is not the only tool at our disposal. There are plenty of other successful tools to help with symptoms of ADHD such as medication, ADHD coaches, even cold dunks! But that is a blog for another time. And no matter what tools you might be using at the moment it is incredibly beneficial to use exercise to help with your ADHD symptoms.

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