Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that can cause a range of symptoms, including difficulty concentrating and impulsive behaviors. Regular exercise may be beneficial for managing behavior and improving cognitive function.

A person with untreated ADHD may find it hard to maintain attention, control their impulses, and manage their energy levels. Doctors may give people with ADHD various treatments, including medication, behavioral management techniques, and other strategies, which may involve exercise.

Mental health practitioners may recommend physical exercise alongside medical or therapeutic treatment options. Both cardiovascular and noncardiovascular exercise show some promise as treatments for ADHD symptoms. However, regular exercise does not automatically mean that a person will see improvements in all aspects of the condition.

In this article, we look at whether exercise can help with ADHD. We also explain how often people should exercise and suggest some activities for people to try.

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Regular exercise is important for everyone, as it helps keep the body healthy, boost mood, and improve quality of life. However, a 2020 article notes that a growing body of research suggests that exercise may be especially helpful for people with ADHD. It may offer these individuals several benefits, including:

  • reduced impulsivity
  • reduced hyperactivity
  • improved attention control
  • enhanced executive functioning

A 2017 meta-analysis researching the link between ADHD and exercise found helpful effects for both cardiovascular and noncardiovascular exercise.

Cardiovascular exercises, such as jogging, cycling, and swimming, raise the heart rate for the duration of the exercise to increase the breathing rate and make the body sweat. Conversely, while noncardiovascular exercises still engage the body, they do not consistently raise the heart and breathing rate and make the person sweat. Examples include strength training, tai chi, and yoga.

The researchers conclude that moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise may help reduce ADHD symptoms in both children and adults. They also note that although noncardiovascular exercise may improve cognitive and motor functions in children, there is not yet enough strong evidence to confirm these benefits.

While multiple factors may contribute to ADHD, research suggests that people with ADHD have structural differences in certain areas of the brain. These differences may cause the brain to respond differently to neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Both of these brain chemicals play vital roles in thinking and attention.

Some medications that doctors may prescribe to treat ADHD can help increase the supply of these neurotransmitters in the brain. Exercise has a similar effect to stimulant medication, in that it can boost neurotransmitter levels in the brain, which may help relieve ADHD symptoms.

A 2020 article notes that in animal models of ADHD, both single bouts of exercise and longer phases of regular exercise cause changes in neurotransmitters in the brain. In humans, the results seem to vary more, with the type and duration of exercise both having an effect.

A 2017 meta-analysis notes that exercise influences various factors in the brain that may bring about these beneficial effects. In addition to decreasing the levels of stress hormones, it may increase:

  • vagal nerve stimulation
  • neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • neuroplasticity
  • blood flow to the brain

The research also notes that many of these effects may be cumulative. If this is the case, it means that the longer a person exercises over time, the more the brain will adapt to these changes to produce better results.

To reap the benefits of physical activity, it is important that people get regular exercise. A person with ADHD can aim to follow the recommended exercise schedule for their age group.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week for adults, which a person can divide up in the way that works best for them. This advice is consistent with other sources that recommend aiming to do 30–40 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on 4–5 days of the week.

The most beneficial types of exercise may vary from person to person. Some experts may recommend that people follow a structured program that incorporates both cardiovascular and strength training.

Doctors may recommend doing particularly engaging or stimulating cardiovascular activities. These activities may help engage the person’s brain more, keep them from getting bored, and increase the cognitive benefits they get from the activity.

Depending on the person’s interests, both team and individual sports might fall into this category.

For example, some people may enjoy sports in which they must constantly follow a ball and judge where it will go and how they should move it. Examples include soccer, basketball, and tennis.

Many other complex team sports may engage the brain and body in a similar way. A person could try:

  • football
  • rugby
  • lacrosse
  • hockey
  • rowing
  • volleyball
  • water polo

For others, individual workouts or routines that are stimulating may help minimize symptoms.

For example, martial arts may provide cardiovascular exercise while adding the stimulation of trying to outthink an opponent or remember a set of moves. Dance routines or dance-based exercises that give the person choreographed steps to follow while working out may be both entertaining and engaging.

Many individual workouts can fit this description, including:

Personalizing the type of cardiovascular exercise to suit an individual’s tastes may help them stick to their exercise regimen.

Alongside a balanced diet, exercise is essential for good health. According to the CDC, regular physical activity benefits the body and brain in various ways, including:

  • strengthening the bones and muscles
  • improving physical functioning
  • improving cognitive abilities
  • boosting mood
  • helping a person reach or maintain a moderate weight
  • reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • reducing the risk of some cancers
  • increasing life expectancy

Doctors may recommend exercise as a treatment for ADHD along with other treatments, such as medications or therapy.

They might recommend either stimulant or nonstimulant medications to help treat ADHD symptoms. A person may also benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, who may recommend practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and stress management.

Exercise is not a stand-alone treatment for ADHD, but it may complement other treatments to help manage symptoms in some people. There is not enough evidence for experts to recommend using exercise as a treatment on its own.

Regular exercise may help some people manage their ADHD symptoms. The benefits of physical activity may be due to its ability to increase levels of neurotransmitters in a similar way to ADHD medication. Regular cardiovascular exercise may be most suitable for relieving ADHD symptoms, but any form of exercise is better than none at all.

Although exercise may help reduce some symptoms of ADHD, it is not sufficient as a stand-alone treatment. A person should follow their doctor’s advice, which may involve regular exercise alongside other treatment options, such as CBT or medication.