Exercise and the ADHD Brain

Updated: Nov 27


Photo by Madison Oren on Unsplash


ADHD: what you need to know

Like many, you may be familiar with ADHD but have received conflicting information or hold outdated views on this condition. As a neurodivergent individual myself, I have heard many half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright falsities related to my condition over the years.


I was diagnosed at the age of 8 and have struggled with managing my symptoms to conform to society's expectations of acceptable behavior ever since. In nursing school, we had lectures for eight hours a day. Sitting still for that long proved to be absolute torture for me, and I would need to hop up and do a lap throughout the building every thirty minutes, much to the supreme annoyance of the professors. It was clear to me that they thought I was being rude when in reality, walking was all I could do to maintain focus. Exercise then has been my saving grace, allowing me to channel my hyperactivity and constant need to move, in a way that supports my mental and physical health. While it is essential that society continues to create space so neurodivergent people can exist as they are and be wholly supported and appreciated, I fully endorse neurodivergent people using every tool available to us to live our best lives.


ADHD is the general term often used, but there are three different presentations. The classic fidgety, overly-talkative, rambunctious behavior that many associates with the conditon is the hyperactive variant. Inattentive ADHD presents more as distracted, uninterested, or undisciplined behavior. You can also have a combined presentation where you experience aspects of both. ADHD presents differently in everyone, but the impulsivity, inattention, and rejection sensitive dysphoria associated with the condition can have lifelong consequences for people who are not optimally managing their symptoms. Women and people of lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately harmed by delayed diagnosis and treatment. Women are especially affected as they most often present with the inattentive variety. This is because they are not as disruptive in the classroom as their hyperactive peers, so they often experience delays in accessing support and resources.


So what can be done to manage the symptoms of ADHD? Treatment for any presentation can include medications and therapy. Still, a growing body of research supports exercise as an additional modality for alleviating some symptoms of ADHD, including decreasing impulsivity, increasing attention, and improving self-esteem for children and adults with ADHD.

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Exercise for ADHD: what kind and how much?

Most research on ADHD and exercise has only looked at cardio, and the general guidelines suggest moderate intensity, cardiovascular exercise for 30-45 minutes, 4-5 days per week. Other activities studied include martial arts, gymnastics, ice skating, rock climbing, and mountain biking. This data suggests that many different types of movement may also carry benefits, such as resistance training. Substantial evidence also supports simply taking a walk in nature as a fantastic tool for symptom management.

The key to designing an exercise program for maximal benefits for someone with ADHD is meeting the unique needs of the ADHD brain. While we know that people experience ADHD differently, there are a few commonly recognized critical differences between the neurotypical and the ADHD brain. A few essential needs that the ADHD brain has are:


· The need for structure

· The need for variety

· The need for measuring outcomes

For example, I thrive with a program that includes resistance training, focusing on heavy, total body movements three days a week and walking my dogs out in nature every day for 30 minutes. I also love utilizing technology that helps me gamify my goals, such as my Fitbit to help me track my steps and fitness apps that record my workouts. When I hit my step goal for the day, I celebrate, which motivates me to do it again tomorrow. I often describe my brain to others as a German shepherd puppy - it requires a lot of exercise, and if not adequately tuckered out - it may eat your shoes.

During the weeks when I am not getting enough exercise, I notice significant changes in my ADHD symptoms, such as decreased attention, decreased emotional regulation, and increased irritability. Therefore, exercise has been an essential tool in my mental health toolkit and has significantly improved my quality of life.


Check out this sample exercise program for someone with ADHD for ideas on how to structure your physical activity.


*Always consult with your physician before starting any exercise program*


Monday

Kettlebell circuit

Goblet squat 10 reps

Gorilla row 10 reps

Floor press 10 reps

KB Halo 30 sec one direction, reverse 30 sec

Rest 2-4 minutes between rounds


Tuesday

30 - 45 minutes, moderate intensity cardio: jog, cycle, swim, row, etc.


Wednesday

Try a new exercise class!

Thursday

Romanian deadlift 4x8

Bench press 4x8

Seated cable row 5 x 10-12

Seated shoulder press 4 x 10-12

Bicep curls 3 x 8

Tricep extension 3 x 10-12

Friday

1-hour walk in nature

Saturday

30 - 45 minutes, moderate intensity cardio: jog, cycle, swim, row, etc.

Sunday

Rest day, active recovery. Walk in nature, play a sport with friends, attend a yoga class


Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash


Conclusion: get moving, in whatever way brings you joy

As a personal trainer, I always emphasize the need to find movement that you genuinely enjoy. The best exercise program is the one you will follow consistently. While cardio may be the most tested exercise modality for treating symptoms of ADHD, any training regimen that provides structure, variety, and a means to measure outcomes can positively impact our ADHD symptoms and life overall.

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