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Why are Sport and Exercise Crucial for ADHD Symptom Control?


The general physical benefits of participating in sport and exercise are well known, but did you know that it is highly beneficial for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

Now that summer is here, it’s the perfect time of year to take up exercise. It’s also when we find ourselves inspired by current and upcoming events such as Wimbledon and the Commonwealth Games.

This article explains some of the benefits of exercise for adult ADHD and suggests different sports that you might like to try.

Boosts dopamine levels in the brain

Exercise not only keeps you physically fit, but it can also boost your mood and give you energy. There’s a lack of dopamine in an ADHD brain and exercising provides a natural dopamine boost that can ease symptoms of ADHD. This is similar, in many ways, to how ADHD medication works.

Aerobic exercise is a great way to regulate dopamine levels. It gets your heart pounding and floods your brain with chemicals. Examples of aerobic exercise are:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Riding a bike
  • Brisk walking
  • A high-impact exercise or aerobics class such as HIIT or Zumba

If you take medication for ADHD, you might want to exercise before taking it. This way you can benefit from both the maximum possible boost from exercising as well as feeling the full effects of your medication.

Improves focus and self-control

Exercise that is mentally as well as physically challenging helps to improve focus and self-control. Martial Arts such as karate, taekwondo, jiu-jitsu, and judo are beneficial for ADHD as they bring together both the mind and body. Martial Arts may also help to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as allow you to develop other skills such as discipline, timing, memory and balance.

Provides routine

An ADHD brain thrives on routine; joining a sports club or team with regular practice sessions creates a regular routine for both your brain and your body. If ADHD makes team sports difficult, you can find other ways to create routine through exercise; you might join an exercise class or go for a run at the same time of the day. Once you have an exercise routine, it’s important to stick to it. One advantage of team sports is that being part of a group will motivate you to continue and keep going. It’s much harder to feel driven when you’re doing something on your own.

Improves concentration

Sports such as tennis and other racket sports are a great way for someone with ADHD to build concentration; you need to focus on your own actions, the position of the ball, keeping score and following the rules of the game all at the same time. Archery is another sport that requires concentration as you have to focus so intently on the target.

Boosts self-esteem and makes you feel good

Getting out and exercising is a great way to improve your self-esteem and self-confidence. The more you practice a sport, the better you will get. You will get stronger and see a difference in yourself both physically and mentally. You can feel satisfied that you are doing something positive for your mind and body.

Exercise produces endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain. It’s common for someone with ADHD to suffer from depression and while exercise cannot and should not be viewed as an antidepressant, it can improve your mood and give you a positive outlook.

Improves breath control

Calming exercises such as yoga slow the brain down and allow you to focus on your breath.

You might want to practise yoga in conjunction with mindful meditation. Mindfulness is highly recommended as a way to treat ADHD. It works by bringing a racing mind back to focus on the present moment. At the ADHD Centre, we have a short six-part mindfulness course. You can access the first lesson for free here.

If yoga is not for you, there are other sports where focusing on the breath is helpful such as rock climbing, gymnastics, dance and swimming.

Helps you sleep

Not sleeping well and ADHD often go hand in hand. This is due to a number of factors including having excess energy. Exercise helps us to burn off additional energy in a positive and satisfying way. This, in turn, may help to improve sleep.

However, it’s also worth noting that exercise increases brain activity. You should avoid exercising close to bedtime or it could make sleep more difficult, even if the body is physically tired. If you have been exercising in the evening, make sure you have some quiet, relaxing time before attempting to sleep; this will allow you to unwind and prepare your body and mind for sleep.

What happens when your motivation dips?

Once the novelty of a new activity wears off, it can be difficult to keep up that initial motivation. ADHD can make it tough to develop a fitness routine but with sport and exercise, you will see more benefits the longer you keep doing it, so it’s important not to give up too soon. This is a particular problem if you have ADHD, and get bored quickly. Here are some tips to help you remain interested in new activities:

  • Make sure you choose a sport you enjoy. It will help you to avoid procrastination if you have a genuine interest and look forward to your exercise.
  • Exercise in the morning before taking your medication. This allows you to fully benefit from all the mood-boosting chemicals surging through your body and you’ll feel their full benefit.
  • Pay any fees in advance. You’re much more likely to do something you’ve already paid for than something you do on a pay-as-you-go basis.
  • Ask someone you know to come with you or be your fitness buddy. It’s much better if you have someone with whom you can share your exercise highs and lows.
  • You can exercise indoors or outdoors but if you can, go outside as being outdoors is even more beneficial for an ADHD brain.
  • Don’t limit yourself to just one sport and have an indoor alternative you can do if the weather lets you down.
  • Set a goal that is realistic for you e.g. 4 hours a week of exercise for 10 weeks. Log your achievements and reward yourself when you reach your goal.
  • Use technology like alarms and phone reminders to tell you to exercise.
  • Get your exercise clothing or equipment ready in advance. This will prompt you to use it.
  • Recognise when you’ve had enough. There’s no point in continuing something if you know it isn’t for you. If you have had enough of doing a certain sport or activity, then stop doing it. Just make sure you have something else lined up to take its place first.

It goes without saying that exercise is hard work, but for someone with ADHD, the mental and physical benefits it brings make it worthwhile. It’s important to remember that high-impact sports do not appeal to everyone and the main goal here is being active. Even going for a walk can make a significant difference. The key is to find a form of exercise that suits your lifestyle and to do it regularly.

Exercise alone is not sufficient to manage ADHD symptoms. The best way to manage your symptoms is through specifically prescribed medication and specialist treatment. Exercise should never be used as a substitute for other treatments.

To find out more about our private ADHD assessments and our different ADHD treatments and coaching plans, please contact us at The ADHD Centre on 0800 061 4276 or via enquiries@adhdcentre.co.uk.

ADHD Centre

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ADHD Centre

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