Exercise and the ADHD Brain

Wherever you are on the ADHD discovery path, odds are you’ve read or heard about exercise having many benefits for neurodivergent people. Yet it can feel like just another task to add to the list of already overwhelming things to get done.

Which is why taking some time to understand the bigger picture of why exercise is so beneficial for the ADHD mind can support you in making some changes that will yield immense benefits.

For starters, the science behind why getting a bit sweaty on a regular basis is fascinating.

Read on to learn more.

Movement as medicine

Getting regular exercise can raise the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain and even lead to growth of new receptors in areas of the brain most impacted by ADHD.

Consistent movement also helps to regulate the brain stem’s arousal centre, the source of irritability and reactivity.

Exercise for better attention

If you find yourself easily startled by your own shadow, it can be traced back to your arousal centre, or in medical terms, locus coeruleus.

Studies have shown that exercise reduces these unwanted intrusions and helps promote well-being and a sense of calm, something ADHD’ers often struggle to access and maintain. What’s not to like about feeling less agitated?

One of the reasons medications can be so effective for ADHD is how it supports the basal ganglia, the area of the brain responsible for smooth shifting of attention from one thing to another.

If task switching or focusing on more than one conversation are challenging for you, consider that getting to the gym can help support your ability to navigate competing priorities for your attention.

Walking for impulse control

In a landmark study, MRI scans showed that getting out for a stroll three times a week for six months increased the volume of the prefrontal cortex, the epicentre of impulse control.

Consider this: getting out for a walk can support you in making more rational decisions that benefit you in the long term. Instead of posting an angry rant on social media after feedback from your boss, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to cool off and reassess the situation.

It can also help reduce the impulse to overspend online or succumb to peer pressure and over consume at the company holiday mixer.

Jump start the day

Starting an exercise routine in the morning will help get your dopamine levels up and support your brain to address the challenges of the day ahead.

For those that take medication as part of their strategy, scheduling your dose shortly after your workout will lead to a smoother transition into the day.

Create novelty

Choosing a variety of ways to get your blood pumping will keep you interested and less likely to stop when they become too repetitive.

It’s widely understood that neurodivergent people are drawn to new and novel pursuits, so consider trying a new way of adding more movement to your exercise plan.

For example, martial arts such as Tai Chi or Qigong are excellent for building more balance, muscle tone and mindful movement. A walking desk can be an excellent way to keep moving during long Zoom meetings and forest bathing is another way to move through the natural world and stimulate all your senses.

Introducing more movement into your life doesn’t have to mean a gruelling 5 am workout at a busy gym (although that does help some people).

Consider tailoring your own experience to what fits within your budget, age group, and lifestyle, supported with a healthy dose of humour and self-compassion.