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Exercise and ADHD Symptoms

How to Improve ADHD Symptoms With Exercise


Updated June 19, 2014

Exercise and ADHD Symptoms

Research finds that exercise can improve focus and elevate moods.

Photo © Microsoft

How Does Exercise Improve ADHD Symptoms?

We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, but did you know that it is also good for your brain?

John J. Ratey, MD is clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of eight books including bestseller, Driven to Distraction.

In his newest book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Ratey explores the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance. He was kind enough to respond to a few questions.

Why Do You Prescribe Exercise For Treating ADHD In Children and Adults? What Are The Benefits?

Dr. Ratey: There are many reasons for exercise in ADHD. Exercise almost immediately elevates dopamine and norepinephrine and keeps them up for a period of time so that it acts like a little bit of Ritalin or Adderall. It also helps to still the impulsivity and still the cravings for immediate gratification as it works to wake up the executive function of the frontal cortex, which in turn allows for delay, better choices, a bit more time to evaluate consequences.

How Does Exercise Affect Our Learning?

Dr. Ratey: Exercise Affects Learning In 3 Major Ways.

  • Exercise improves the learner. Their senses are heightened, their focus and mood are improved, they’re less fidgety and tense, and they feel more motivated and invigorated.

  • In addition to priming your state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving your brain’s potential to log in and process new information. Exercise creates the environment for our brain cells to wire together, which is the basic building block of learning. One of the key ingredients that exercise increases is BDNF, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or what I call Miracle Gro for the brain -- as it truly is fertilizer.

  • Exercise is also perhaps the best way to increase neurogenesis, which is the making of new neurons that happens on its own daily. The process is pumped up greatly after we exercise, by releasing factors to encourage the process of our innate stem cells to divide and then provide a healthier internal environment for them to grow up to be functioning nerve cells on their own.

    How Does Exercise Affect Stress Levels and Mood?

    Dr. Ratey: Exercise helps to heighten the response to stressors -- that is, we become less stressed to the same stressors when in a fit condition. We don’t turn on the initial stress response as quickly. Also, we make our cells more resilient in a process that is called “stress inoculation”. By stressing the cells a bit, we build up internal resistance to future stressors so we make armies of our own antioxidant enzymes, repair and rebuild proteins, and improve the toxic waste disposal crews inside of our nerve cells.

    Mood is made better by raising the levels of our neurotransmitters that we target with our antidepressants: Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. All get jacked up by exercise. As well our friend, BDNF, is itself an antidepressant and helps to reverse the curse of depression -- which is to decrease neuroplasticity. Exercise reenergizes our depressed brains to do its job of adapting to our environment.

    For more info about exercise and the brain, click on Spark.

    Related Reading:
    Treating ADHD
    Complementary/Alternative Treatment Approaches


    John J. Ratey, MD. Personal interview/correspondence. 18, March 08.

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