Exercise has long been touted for its physical benefits. From weight management to reduced risk for developing chronic diseases, bodily activity is at the heart of many healthy lifestyles.
New research, however, also reveals that exercise may play a key role in relieving the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“There are many reasons for exercise in ADHD,” says John J. Ratey, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of eight books. “[Exercise] helps to still the impulsivity and still the cravings for immediate gratification as it works to wake up the executive function of the frontal cortex, which in turn allows for delay, better choices, a bit more time to evaluate consequences.”
How Exercise Benefits Mental Health
Recent studies suggest that exercise helps kids push beyond previous failures and tackle new projects or activities. “The refrain of many ADHD kids is, ‘No matter what I do, I’m going to fail,'” says Dr. Ratey. “Rat studies show that exercise reduces learned helplessness. In fact, if you’re aerobically fit, the less likely you are to learn helplessness.”
When a person engages in physical activity, the brain releases several important chemicals. Among these are dopamine, seratonin and norepinephrine, which have shown during scientific studies to be in short supply among ADHD patients. These chemicals impact focus and attention, and their increase leads to regular and consistent concentration.
According to doctors, depression and mood disorders are commonly associated with ADHD. Exercise diminishes these through the release of endorphins, which are hormones that regulate pain, pleasure and mood. Moreover, exercise reduces aggressive behaviors that are often exhibited by ADHD patients. Physical activity actually provides a productive outlet for aggressive impulses, thereby reducing their frequency and intensity. Exercise also utilizes excess energy. This is a viable way to decrease characteristic fidgeting and bouncing.
In total, science has shown that exercise improves mental alertness and reduces drowsiness. Exercise increases brain complexity by creating new neural pathways. According to doctors, “the more complex and interconnected the brain is, the easier it is to learn new skills and remember new information.” This is particularly useful for children with ADHD who often have low self-esteem and struggle with school lessons.
Impacts of Exercise on Learning
According to Dr. Ratey, exercise not only improves learning as a whole, but also improves the learner. With the need to continually fidget and move reduced, a person’s senses are heightened. In turn, he or she feels more invigorated and motivated to learn. Exercise influences learning in a direct way as well, at the cellular level where the brain maintains its potential to process and access new information. Briefly explained, exercise creates the necessary environment for brain cells to wire together. Doctors state this is the building block of learning.
Studies have shown that exercise is also likely the best way to increase neurogenesis, which is the process of making new neurons. Neuron production is elevated after exercise, as shown by an investigation undertaken at Columbia University. This improves performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. In essence, exercise can create a stronger and faster brain in persons with or without ADHD.
Exercise Options for Persons with ADHD
“Get your child involved in something that he finds fun, so he will stick with it,” recommends Dr. Ratey. This means that children need not be star athletes or marathon runners to reap the benefits afforded by exercise. Walking for 30 minutes four times per week will offer profound advantages. Studies have also revealed that tae kwon do, ballet and gymnastics are smart exercise choices. These tax the attention system and require participants to pay close attention to body movements. Both offer a variety of benefits for adolescents with ADHD.
Active, fast-moving team sports also get children physically involved. These hold interest levels more easily than solitary sports, and they have shown to improve planning and organization skills. Sports like hiking and trail running that occur in beautiful, natural settings may also offer special benefits to people with ADHD. Recent studies have suggested that persons who enjoy “green” time in an outdoors environment have improved ADHD symptoms. This in conjunction with the advantages afforded by exercise may provide remarkable help to ADHD sufferers.
Finally, professionals recommend that persons with ADHD mix up their exercise routines to gain diversity. Some suggestions are as follows:
Go for a walk one day and then take a bike ride the next.
Alternate the times of exercise workouts; try the morning one day and the afternoon another.
Break a 30-minute workout into two 15 minute periods.
Involve the whole family for a fun way to stay motivated