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Adult ADHD and Exercise

ADHD doesn't only affect children. Adults can have this condition, too.

ADHD can make it hard for adults to pay attention, control their emotions, and finish tasks.

Just like kids, adults with ADHD are often given stimulant drugs or other medications to control symptoms. They may also have therapy sessions to help get organized and stay focused.

One ADHD treatment that doesn't require a prescription or a visit to a therapist's office is exercise. Research is finding that getting regular fitness can improve thinking ability, and it may improve the symptoms of adult ADHD.

Exercise and the Brain

Exercise isn't just good for shedding fat and toning muscles. It can help keep the brain in better shape, too.

When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which helps with attention and clear thinking. People with ADHD often have less dopamine than usual in their brain.

The stimulant medicines that are often used to treat adult ADHD work by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain. So it makes sense that a workout can have many of the same effects as stimulant drugs. Because of these effects, some people with ADHD are able to lower their medication dose -- or even stop taking medicines altogether.

Fitness can have the following benefits for adults with ADHD:

  • Ease stress and anxiety.
  • Improve impulse control and reduce compulsive behavior.
  • Enhance working memory.
  • Improve executive function. That's the set of skills needed to plan, organize, and remember details.
  • Increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. That's a protein involved in learning and memory. It's in short supply in people with ADHD.

More Reasons to Exercise

Beyond helping with ADHD symptoms, exercise has several other benefits. Getting regular workouts can help you:

  • Stay at a healthy weight. That's important because evidence suggests that people with ADHD are more likely to become obese.
  • Reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a normal range.
  • Strengthen your bones.
  • Improve your mood and self-esteem.

How Often Should You Exercise?

Health experts recommend that you get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. That works out to about 30 minutes of fitness a day, five days a week.

If you're doing more intense aerobic workouts -- such as running or taking indoor cycling classes -- you can get away with about 75 minutes of exercise a week.

It doesn't matter what type of exercise you do. For example, you can try running, biking, taking an aerobics class, or weight training. Do whatever kind of workout you love.

Try to vary your exercise routine. That way you won't lose interest or focus halfway through your workouts. You can even change exercises mid-routine, for example by doing interval training. Run or cycle for 30 seconds, alternated with 30 seconds to a minute of weight lifting.

As long as you're sweating and your heart is pumping, you're likely to see real, positive effects from exercise on your ADHD symptoms.

If you're having trouble staying motivated, get a workout buddy. A friend can help keep you on track, making sure that you exercise on most days of the week. Your exercise buddy will hold you accountable, so you can't bail out on your workouts.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 31, 2012
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