top of page

Unleashing Focus: The powerful impact of exercise on ADHD

In honor of the tradition of setting New Year's resolutions, here are a few reasons why exercise should be at the top of your list if you have ADHD. Now this resolution has nothing to do with your physical appearance and everything to do with managing symptoms.

A watercolor rendering of two women jogging

Exercise and ADHD

How exercise impacts the brain.

How exactly is exercise going to help improve our ADHD symptoms? Interestingly enough, exercise has a similar impact on your brain as stimulant medication. (This is not me telling you to get off your meds, often exercise and meditation are used together, and exercise can be a great stand-alone tool if you are raw-dogging your ADHD symptoms like me.)

When you exercise, your brain releases more neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, something ADHD'rs are lacking).

Water color painting of a woman running

As a result, exercise:

  • lessens anxiety

  • improves impulsivity

  • improves memory

  • improves executive functioning (the skills we need to adult successfully)

  • Increases BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor - a protein that supports learning and memory)

How exercise decreases ADHD symptoms

Now for the science of it.

Exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine.

ADHD'rs tend to have low levels of both of these neurotransmitters, leading to the ADHD symptoms we know and love.

Watercolor painting of neural pathways

Regular exercise raises the baseline levels of both of these neurotransmitters, inducing the growth of new receptors and lessening symptoms over the long term.

Norepinephrine in the brain stem's arousal center in particular can impact our emotions. The more balanced our norepinephrine is, the less likely we are to react unreasonably to a situation.

And finally, balanced dopamine can decrease "undirected neuron chatter". Basically, dopamine can help us tune out irrelevant signals, helping us focus on what is actually important.

How to Start

Exploring different types of exercise

It's important to figure out what you like when trying to start exercising. The less like a chore this feels like, the easier it's going to be.

Regardless of what you enjoy, you want to make sure it is moderately intense to get benefits. This means your heart rate should increase, your breathing should become labored, you should sweat, and your muscles should feel tired.

Some great options include:

  • brisk walks

  • running

  • biking

  • swimming

  • any martial arts

  • ice skating

  • gymnastics

  • hiking

The more complex the better as it will trigger and train more skills that will support your ADHD. Martial arts in particular triggers balance, timing, sequencing, consequences, error correction, fine motor skills, inhibition, focus, and concentration.

Kids in Taekwondo

We placed all three of our kids in Taekwondo and found out after the fact that my son's occupational therapist actually recommends Taekwondo as a top option to support her neurodivergent families. It teaches concentration, focus, and commitment in a way many other extracurriculars lack.

But if walking is the most realistic option for you right now, you will still see immense benefits. A study put out by Arthur Kramer, Ph.D. out of the University of Illinois found that walking 3 days a week for 6 months increased executive functioning in his adult test subjects.

How to maintain motivation after you've started.

Starting a new exercise routine is easy, sticking with it is the hard part.

So what are some things you can do to maintain motivation after the excitement of a new routine has worn off?

  • Keep it interesting

Exercise doesn't have to be miserable. Do things you enjoy. And if you find yourself getting bored, try something new.

adults in a cycling class
  • Join a class or a club

Joining a class or something with a set schedule can help maintain motivation long after the honeymoon phase has passed. (Especially if you have made a financial commitment to it)

  • Reward yourself

Set exercise goals and reward yourself for accomplishing them. Buy yourself a new gym outfit after going for a week. Splurge on those new AirPods after you take your morning walk every day for a week. Treat yourself for your successes.

  • Find a partner

Similarly to joining a class, finding a partner can help maintain motivation and accountability. Especially if this is someone you exercise with.

  • Make it work for you

Don't adjust your life around a new exercise routine. You're only setting yourself up for failure. Instead, work your new routine into your life. If you know you're not a morning person, but you do get a second wind in the evening, exercise then! If you know you're not likely to want to leave your house to go to the gym in the winter, find online classes you can do from home. Make implementing this new habit as easy as possible.

  • Reflect

Reflect regularly on how this new routine is impacting you. Are there kinks that need to be worked out? What benefits are you seeing? Staying aware of your experiences will help you maintain motivation.

What is your favorite way to exercise? Let us know in the comments!

And don't forget to book a session with your favorite certified ADHD life coach to help you hit the ground running in 2024!

22 views1 comment

1 Comment

Dec 27, 2023

Thank you for this article! I WAS debating on whether or not to go to the gym today. The answer is YES! Great reminder.

bottom of page