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Exercise for Your ADHD: Good Things Come to Those Who Sweat

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If we offered you a pill that could help you focus, improve your mood, make you sleep soundly, and boost your self-confidence, would you take it? Maybe, but you’d want to know the side effects, right? What if the only “side effects” were a great body and cardiovascular system, plus a decreased risk of dementia - Would you take it then? “OK! I’ll take a mouthful right now!!” you’d say - followed by: “Where can I get some more?!” You might offer to pay us lots of money for this fabulous new invention. But it’s not some future wonder drug. It’s available to you right here, right now, and for almost nothing. It’s not a pill—it’s “EXERCISE!”

Exercise is not only great for your body, it’s also great for your brain. It helps many people with ADHD focus, and it leads to some changes in the brain that are comparable to the effects of Ritalin and other stimulant medications used to treat ADHD. As we mentioned in our last blog post, this has even been shown in lab rats: the brains of rats that run regularly on an exercise wheel are different from those that can’t exercise. In certain respects - such as dopamine levels in key brain areas – the brains of rats that run every day resemble those of rats fed stimulant medications.

In our book, “ADHD and the Focused Mind,” we write about the mental benefits of exercise and how the athletic mindset that drives winning in sports can be applied to maximize success with ADHD. But many patients ask us: “What kind of exercise is best for ADHD?“

We wrote our book with Peter Johnson, a seventh degree black belt in karate, and Ben is a second degree black belt in Peter’s dojo - so we are best positioned to attest to the mental benefits of martial arts in general and karate in particular. One reason why martial arts may be particularly appropriate for ADHD is that honing mental focus is an explicit goal of all martial arts training. One of the mantras of instruction in Peter’s dojo, and in many other dojos, is: “Focus your eyes; Focus your mind; Focus your body.” The idea is that by repetition and training on all these levels, ‘Focus’ becomes one’s natural attitude and automatic approach to challenges. The hope is that this attitude and approach will transcend martial arts - paying dividends in life outside the dojo as well.

But you may not want to do karate or any other martial art – it might not be a good fit for you. So then, what is another “best exercise” for ADHD? Any exercise is better than no exercise. That said, here are some practical tips if you have ADHD and are thinking about starting an exercise program. If you want your physical activity or sport to help with management of your ADHD symptoms, ask these four questions about it:

1. Does it reward intermediate goals? In martial arts, each new color-coded belt shows how far a student has come; each new belt also reinforces the long-term goal of attaining a black belt. A beginning rock climber might start by climbing a small artificial wall with molded hand- and foot-holds in an indoor gym, but as she increases in ability she will work toward more complex routes and longer more difficult slopes until she is ready to scale natural rock formations outside in the national parks. A weightlifter sets a goal to lift a certain target weight, but as he trains and grows stronger he celebrates incremental weightlifting milestones on the way to achieving his ultimate goal. Runners, bikers and swimmers train for personal distance or timing records—completing a marathon, a 100 mile trek, or an organized road race in a specific time. Achieving such a goal in any sport generally requires an interval training plan that features intermediate goals and celebrates achieving them. This is important because having a specific achievable goal is strongly motivating, and celebrating a succession of intermediate goals is much more effective at keeping one engaged and motivated than trying to reach a single big remote goal that may be difficult to attain. We write about this extensively in our book, and refer to it as the “Super-STAR” method of setting and achieving “S.M.A.R.T.” goals.

2. Does it match you up with a coach or trainer? It’s useful to have someone set goals with you, push you, remind you of how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go, motivate you spiritually, fortify you mentally, and provide technical feedback about how your skills are developing. Bonding with a coach who gets to know you over a long time is more effective than engaging a series of trainers who each work with you for only a short interval. In the martial arts the person who occupies this long-term coaching position is called 'sensei' - a teacher to whom you owe gratitude and respect – but of course the relationship doesn’t have to be so formal, and it isn’t in every sport. Most generally, it is important to have a coach who respects you and your goals, who knows how to keep you motivated, and to whom you are able to listen.

3. Does it involve other people? In the martial arts, one trains in a dojo (school) along with other students under the same sensei or a group of sensei. The students in a dojo form a peer- and support-group: encouraging, reinforcing, and applauding each other’s accomplishments. But many forms of athletic activity are social and will automatically engage you with a group of people - the most obvious example is any team sport where (hopefully) your teammates are there to support your participation and success. But even solo forms of sport offer opportunities for group involvement. Running or biking by yourself can be very relaxing and good for your spirit, but for long-term success even in these solo sports it is a good idea to join a club with other like-minded participants. These are people who will ask, “Where were you yesterday? Why didn’t you train?” - and congratulate you when you win! In the worst case, if you really can’t find a group of people nearby with whom to train, consider using an app to connect remotely to a community of similar spirits – real people who can keep you honest, boost you up, and cheer you on electronically, if not in person.

4. Is it FUN? It’s much easier to focus on anything that is fun! So get creative with your exercise. Running on a treadmill might be good enough for rats in a cage, but you are not a rat (and hopefully you don’t live in a cage)! So don’t be afraid to try something new: How about boxing, basketball, ice hockey, fencing, dance, or Parkour? Look for some activity that is varied in the near-term and also offers a gateway to increasing technique, complexity, and self-awareness over time – this will help keep your mind and spirit engaged, as well as your body.

Regular exercise is a major component of an overall health and happiness program—it also contributes toward achieving a great mindset to cope with ADHD. Regardless of any neuropsychiatric condition or diagnosis, it will help you be your best possible you. And when you do achieve your next personal best within your sport, remember to pop open a bottle of bubbly (alcoholic or non-) and celebrate your victory! That beats popping open a bottle of pills any day of the week!