What's the Best Exercise to Manage ADHD Symptoms?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 27, 2023
5 min read

You may have heard that regular exercise can give your mood a boost. If you have ADHD, a workout does more than make you feel good. It can help control your symptoms, too.

Even a single session of moving your body can make you more motivated for mental tasks, increase your brainpower, give you energy, and help you feel less confused. It acts on your brain in a lot of the same ways as your ADHD medication.

To reap these rewards, though, you need to exercise the right way and the right amount. The key is to find an activity that fits your lifestyle and then stick with it.

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 help with attention and clear thinking. People with ADHD often have less dopamine than usual in their brain.

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.

The effects of exercise only last for so long, just like medicine. Think of your workout as a treatment "dose." Aim for at least one 30- to 40-minute activity a day, 4 or 5 days a week.

The exercise you choose is up to you, but make sure it's "moderately intense," which means that during your workout:

  • Your heart rate goes up.
  • You breathe harder and faster.
  • You sweat.
  • Your muscles feel tired.

Talk to your doctor if you're unsure how intense your exercise should be. They may recommend you use a heart rate monitor or some other device to make sure you get the most out of your workout.

Aerobic exercise. This is anything that gets your heart pounding. You want to do something that raises your heart rate and keeps it there for a set amount of time, like half an hour to 40 minutes.

Aerobic exercise creates new pathways in your brain and floods it with the chemicals that help you pay attention.

You can try one of these:

  • Running
  • Walking briskly
  • Biking
  • Swimming laps

You can do these activities outdoors or indoors, but if you have a choice, go outside. Studies show that being in nature while you move can reduce your ADHD symptoms even more than when you exercise inside.

Martial arts. Experts say the more complex your exercise is, the better for your brain. Sports like karate, taekwondo, jiujitsu, and judo focus on self-control and bringing together your mind and body.

When you do martial arts, you get training in skills like:

  • Focus and concentration
  • Balance
  • Timing
  • Memory
  • Consequences of actions
  • Fine motor skills

Other complex exercises. If martial arts isn't your thing, other physical activities that challenge your mind and body are:

  • Rock climbing
  • Dance
  • Gymnastics
  • Yoga

Strength training. If you're only just starting out with exercise, go for aerobic activities like walking or jogging at first. After you've been at it for a while, add in some strength work for variety. Try exercises like:

  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Pushups
  • Pullups
  • Weightlifting

Team sports. If you join a softball or soccer league, it may be just the thing to get you up and moving several times a week. Organized sports have all the benefits of physical exercise with the added bonus of a social group to motivate you.

Teamwork hones your communication skills and helps you think through your actions and plan ahead. Being part of a team can also improve your self-esteem.

Just like medicine, exercise only helps you treat ADHD if you keep it up. But if you have problems with your attention span, how do you stay the course? Try these tips:

Keep it interesting. Switch up the type of exercise. You can stay out of a rut if you change your activity every day or week.

Find a partner. A workout buddy can help you stay on track and help pass the time while you sweat.

Move in the morning. If it fits in your schedule, exercise first thing in the morning before you take your medication. That way, you'll get the most benefit from all the extra mood-boosting chemicals in your body.

Maintain meds. Exercise can give you a huge leg up on your ADHD symptoms, but it doesn't replace your medication. Don't stop your other treatments unless your doctor says it's OK.

Deciding whether your kid with ADHD should play sports can be a tough call for parents. But most experts agree that the benefits make it a worthwhile choice. 

How sports can help

Physical exercise is good for kids with ADHD. But playing sports has other positives. Among them: 

  • Social interaction. For kids who struggle in unstructured situations like the playground or lunchroom, a sport with routines and rules can be a good place to learn how to work with other kids.  
  • Goal-setting. Sports can teach about short-term and long-term goals. 
  • Chance to develop other interests. Some kids with ADHD struggle with academics. Sports can be a way to succeed at something, which improves self-esteem. 

What are the challenges? 

All kids can struggle with their focus and emotions while playing sports. But kids with ADHD may especially have trouble with: 

  • Distraction. This can cause kids to miss responsibilities in team sports or have trouble following a coach's instructions. 
  • Motivation. Sports practice can be repetitive and boring. 
  • Emotional regulation. Kids with ADHD are often impulsive. They may have trouble handling frustration, become upset with teammates, or cry when things don't go their way. 

Are there any special risks? 

Parents need to be especially vigilant about concussions. Studies have shown that athletes with ADHD report more concussions than athletes without ADHD, and they take longer to recover. That's something to bear in mind if your kid is interested in a contact sport like football or another sport tied to higher concussion risk, like soccer. 

What are the best sports for kids with ADHD?

There's no research on what sport is best. Sometimes kids with ADHD are steered toward martial arts, but scientists don't have any proof of particular benefits. 

An individual sport might be best for a kid who gets distracted more easily in groups, or who would do better with one-on-one coaching. But you lose out on some of social benefits of team sports.

 The best sport for your kid is the one they are interested in and enjoy.