Exercise is Essential for ADHD Patients

Exercise is Essential for ADHD Patients

John Ratey M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School confirms that exercise should be a priority for ADHD patients.

“For a very small handful of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it may actually be a replacement for stimulants. For most, it’s complementary — something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.”

Unfortunately we think of exercise as a way to lose weight rather than a routine physical activity that protects the brain. “In fact, exercise turns on the attention system in the brain. This system is comprised by the so-called executive functions and they include sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention.”

Dr. John Ratey is the author of the 2008 book titled Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In it he points out that “on a practical level, exercise causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn.”

This is excellent news for parents of children with ADHD. It seems rather evident to experts in the field that exercise helps kids a great deal and it facilitates pushing through past failures and attempting things they didn’t succeed at before.

Exercise is an incredible confidence booster. It’s quite unfortunate that most ADHD kids believe that they are doomed to fail in school, in sports and even in life.

Dr. Ratey has conducted studies with lab mice that show that exercise reduces learned helplessness. He believes being aerobically fit is an antidote to learning and internalizing helplessness.

How does exercise deliver these benefits to the ADHD individual? It is a fact that when you walk, run or practice any form of aerobic exercise, your brain releases several important chemicals. Some of these substances called endorphins are hormone-like compounds that regulate mood, pleasure and pain.

In the same way, any burst of activity also elevates the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These changes in the brain directly affect focus and attention which are in short supply in individuals with ADHD.

In particular, increased dopamine levels allow the brain to function in a regular and consistent fashion which, in turn, has many positive effects. In many patients, exercise alone can decrease the craving for new stimuli and raise alertness.

What is even better is that extreme intensity is not necessary. A mild level of exercise such as walking for 30 minutes, four times a week, will do the trick.

The key to maintaining the benefit is to get your child involved in something that he finds fun. Therefore, the activity is rewarding in itself and it does not become a chore. Team activities or exercise with a social component are especially beneficial for both kids and adults.


ADDitude Magazine, “Exercise: An Alternative ADHD Treatment Without Side Effects” Accessed October 8, 2011.

CogMed, “The Best Alternative Therapies for Managing ADHD Symptoms” Accessed October 8, 2011.