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Combining Medication and Exercise to Soothe ADHD Symptoms: 4 Facts

By Manjari Bansal
ADHD treatment can be more effective if it includes both medication and exercise. Here are four facts that explain the potentially therapeutic role of exercise in ADHD treatment.

Many adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) encounter problems with maintaining focus, controlling impulses, and managing emotions. A variety of medications and therapy strategies exist to help control these symptoms. Additionally, growing evidence shows that medication, combined with regular physical exercise, may effectively reduce ADHD symptoms. Discover four interesting facts about how the combination of exercise and medicine can be a valuable feature of your ADHD treatment plan.

1. There is evidence that exercise combined with medication helps reduce ADHD symptoms.

According to a 2020 study published by the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, there is a growing body of scientific literature demonstrating that physical exercise can potentially play a role in the treatment of ADHD. Evidence suggests that physical exercise helps reduce the severity of core ADHD symptoms and improve executive function.

“Exercise is an incredibly powerful treatment approach that can be combined with medications or other treatments to reduce ADHD symptoms,” James Greenblatt, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“While research has focused more heavily on children, studies in adults appear to corroborate the findings. Generally, regular aerobic exercise has been found to increase motivation, reduce impulsivity, restore attention, and improve mood,” Greenblatt says.

2. Both exercise and ADHD medications can boost the levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain.

“Studies have shown that both acute and chronic exercise can increase brain levels of dopamine and norepinephrine—neurotransmitters implicated in ADHD,” Thomas Beck, MD and Child, Adolescent, & Adult Psychiatry Specialist at Winston Center in Spokane, Washington, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“The drugs used to treat ADHD are also known to increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine,” Beck says.

Dopamine and norepinephrine play an important role in maintaining the attention system of your brain. Since the attention system in ADHD does not work to its full potential, ADHD medications usually increase the availability of these neurotransmitters. 

The fact that exercise also increases the levels of these brain chemicals explains its beneficial effect on the ADHD brain, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

3. Exercise may help regulate sleep in people with ADHD.

“People with ADHD often struggle with getting enough sleep, which only makes their performance the next day even worse,” Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA, a clinical psychologist in West Chester, PA, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Nearly 55% of children and 80% of adults with ADHD find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, according to CHADD.

“Medication can help you manage your day more effectively and get more done earlier, so it's more possible to get into bed on time. Exercise also helps to regulate sleep, so you may find that you fall asleep more easily on days that you worked out,” Tuckman adds.

4. Exercise, combined with medication, may reduce hyperactivity in adults with ADHD.

“Both medication and exercise can help adults with ADHD to manage their hyperactive restlessness, so it's easier to sit through meetings at work, or family dinners at home, without that antsy feeling,” Tuckman says.

Additionally, “Exerting physical energy provides an outlet that supports a decrease in impulsivity and reduced hyperactivity,” Amy Cirbus, LMHC, LPC, Director of Clinical Content at Talkspace, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Adult ADHD is treatable and manageable. 

While therapy and medications can be key tools for reducing the severity of ADHD symptoms and the condition’s impact on your life, the addition of regular physical exercise can also offer key benefits. From improved sleep to increased productivity, it’s clear that a regular physical exercise routine can benefit those with ADHD.