How often do you read or hear about the importance of exercise? A lot I bet. Just turn on the TV, surf the net or read a magazine. And you’ll see that “you just need to do it!” At least that’s what the Nike mentality of exercise would have you believe, right?
Yet, all those messages about the benefits of exercise may not be working their magic. No surprise.
After all, if you have a lot going on right now, it might be hard to fit in one more thing. Even if it’s “good for you.” And, even if you really want to exercise, it’s not going to cut it to tell an ADHD adult to “just do it.” Because, if it were that easy, you would have just done it already.
The key is for you to first make a visceral connection to the rewards of working out. And then you’ll need a solid plan on how to follow through on your exercise plan. So, let’s get started. Below I’ll guide you through the process of recognizing the rewards and creating a plan.
Exercise Turns on The Attention System in ADHD Adults
Cognitive control or the ability to focus on one task at a time is a challenge for ADHD adults. Sometimes you might have a difficult time just starting. Other times you might jump from task to task impulsively. You also may not persist long enough to close the loop. Rather, you end up getting distracted, going down one rabbit hole after another.
Anecdotal evidence, as well as studies, show that exercise can help you manage this by turning on your brain. As Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, notes:
“Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention.”
It does this by triggering the release of the neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which are in short supply in the ADHD brain. An increase in dopamine, in particular, can help you resists distractions and maintain focus. Nice, right?
And, yes, it’s true, stimulant medication does the same thing. Also, these effects from exercise only last few hours. So, you’ll need to consider other interventions, of course. But exercise can be an important part of your holistic treatment plan for your ADHD.
Exercise Helps ADHD Adults Manage Their Moods
Obviously, figuring out how to better focus and attend is important when you want to have better follow through. You get that. You also know when you’re not in a good mood it is hard to stay on task. As you may spend your time and energy focusing on the source of your worry, right?
Some of you may have anxiety and/or depression along with your ADHD. We know these are comorbid conditions in 25 % – 30% of ADHD adults. Even without these conditions adults with ADHD often have mood swings and challenges with emotional regulation.
Exercise can help ameliorate some of the effects of depression and anxiety and generally lift your mood, whatever the cause.
While not definitive, the release of endorphins — the brains “feel good” chemicals — is often pointed to as the reason for this. It’s also possible that there’s another process in the brain or body responsible for the mood-boosting effects of exercise.
Whatever the reason, if you’ve ever experienced the mood enhancing effects of exercise, you know it works.
Adults with ADHD Can Reduce their Stress by Exercising
Everyone feels stress now and then. And a little bit of stress is not such a bad thing for ADHD adults. It can get you going when your mojo just isn’t there. But there is a tipping point. That is, if you experience too much stress, you may end up just shutting down, right?
And you know your ADHD symptoms can exacerbate your feelings of stress. Likewise, your stress can magnify your ADHD symptoms, as stress makes it hard to focus and attend. Obviously, the interplay between these two — ADHD and stress — can make it difficult to enjoy life and do what’s important to you.
So, managing both is important to break this cycle. And, yes, you guessed it. Exercise, in addition to helping to manage your ADHD symptoms, can help alleviate your stress.
One way exercise does this is by causing positive chemical changes in your brain. This includes a reduced production of cortisol, increase in the production of endorphins, and better management of norepinephrine. For a more in-depth look at these chemical changes check out How Does Exercise Reduce Stress? (And How to Use It to Your Advantage).
The above article also points out how exercise is like meditation. And, as I pointed out in Here Is How You Can Easily Use Meditation to Treat Your ADHD, meditation can help quiet a chaotic mind. Similarly, exercise can help you empty your mind of stressful thoughts.
ADHD Adults Get a Better Night’s Sleep When They Exercise
Getting enough sleep is also often a challenge for adults with ADHD. You might have problems falling asleep, getting a restful night’s sleep or waking up too early. Exercise can be one of the antidotes to these problems. No surprise there, right?
A few studies have shown that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the length of your sleep. It seems exercising later in the day but a few hours before bedtime is best for most people. But you will need to experiment to see what works best for you.
How to Implement an Exercise Routine When You Have ADHD
In theory, at least exercising is a great idea, right? But maybe you think you don’t have enough time, you’re too out of shape or you just can’t keep a routine. If these sound familiar, check out the workarounds below before telling yourself, “I just can’t do it!”
List all your fixed, daily non-negotiable appointments (i.e. work, school, book club, soccer practice). Then describe how are you choosing to use the rest of your time. I bet you’ll find a pocket of time to exercise
Type of Exercise
While you may really want to go to the gym, bike outside or walk after work, it might not work with your schedule. Could you put your bike on a trainer, walk during lunch or use a DVD? Aim for what’s possible.
Out of Shape
The key is to start from where you are and build from there. So, if you are not exercising at all now, walk a few blocks every day. And, if your goal is to run a 5K, for example, start by running or walking a ½ mile. Something is better than nothing, right?
Start by make your goal specific and measurable. That is, decide the type of exercise, amount of time (20 minutes, 2 hours…) and frequency (1x, 3x a week….). Even with this specificity, you may still struggle to keep a routine. Add some accountability by working with a trainer or partner. Joining a class can also help you be accountable.
Announcing your intention to reach a goal is another way to add accountability. Tell your family and friends you are going to run that 5K in three months. If you’re feeling brave, announce it via social media. That just might be the incentive you need!
Where Are You Going to Start?
No doubt, exercise is good for you in so many ways. Where do you want to start?