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How exercise helps with ADHD

Robert Merki

If you don't have access to medication, or you simply want to find an alternative, you might be looking for more natural remedies for ADHD. Look no further than exercise.

Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your health and improve ADHD symptoms at once.

From my own experience, I always feel much more focused, calm, happy, and creative after a good workout.

Over the long-run exercise also keeps my mood and focus positive. I always find myself having brain-fog whenever I stop exercising for long periods of time. When my gym closed due to the the COVID-19 lockdowns, I started feeling much more sluggish every single day. This all changed immediately as the lockdowns lifted and I was able to get back to the gym.

But what does the science say about it? Let's take a quick look at 5 different studies.

Study #1

One study showed that children with ADHD who played a mentally difficult video game performed 30.52% better immediately after running a 5-minute relay race.

This study shows that intense exercise can improve the attention of children with ADHD and may help their school performance.

Source: Measurement of the Effect of Physical Exercise on the Concentration of Individuals with ADHD

Study #2

Another study measured the reaction time of adults with ADHD who spent 30 minutes on an exercise bike vs. those who simply watched a movie.

Those with ADHD who were part of the exercise group showed much higher scores than those who watched the movie. Interestingly, there was a smaller difference between the non-ADHD groups.

Patients with ADHD improved in reaction times [...] after exercise, indicating improved attention and processing speed.

Source: Acute Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Executive Function and Attention in Adult Patients With ADHD

Study #3

A meta-analysis in 2016 showed that exercise does indeed have a positive impact on ADHD symptoms.

Results suggest that exercise has a modest positive impact on ADHD functional outcomes, such as executive functions and motor skills, with longer interventions yielding better results.

Interestingly, it seems that exercise intensity does not any significant effect on the outcome:

Furthermore, the use of moderate, moderate-to-vigorous, or vigorous exercise intensity did not significantly affect the derived effect sizes.

Source: The Effects of Physical Exercise on Functional Outcomes in the Treatment of ADHD: A Meta-Analysis

Study #4

Another meta-analysis from 2019 measured four categories of ADHD interventions: neurofeedback, cognitive-behavioral therapy, cognitive training, and physical exercises.

Of the cognitive and behavioral interventions studied, physical exercise, regardless of type, was found to be the most effective in targeting and reducing cognitive symptoms of ADHD.

They also made sure to look at non-medicated individuals, and the effect was no different:

Studies that included only non-medicated participants still produced a homogeneous moderate to large effect size.

Source: Non-pharmacological interventions for cognitive difficulties in ADHD: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Study #5

Finally, a third meta-analysis from 2015 pretty much agrees with all of this.

...all studies investigating the long-term effects of exercise on motor development and ADHD symptomatology rated by parents or teachers reported significant positive effects.

Unfortunately, they find no conclusion about how to create an optimal exercise program:

recommendation regarding the optimal frequency or duration of exercise for achieving best possible results cannot be specified

They agree with the rest of the studies mentioned here.

The results presented in the literature suggest that multifaceted exercise programs seem to be the most effective in enhancing all facets of health including physical, mental, and social well-being in children and adolescents with ADHD.

Finally, they conclude that some form of endurance training should be part of exercise programs.

Because positive, especially acute, effects of aerobic running or cycling exercises on cognition in children with ADHD have been reported by several studies, endurance training should be part of exercise programs

Source: Exercise Interventions in Children and Adolescents With ADHD: A Systematic Review

What's the best exercise for ADHD?

There is no doubt that ADHD symptoms can be improved with exercise. Both my own experience, and the results of the aforementioned studies all agree.

So what is the optimal exercise for ADHD?

Unfortunately, there just isn't enough data to give a scientifically proven exercise plan, but we can make a few conclusions based on these studies.

Your exercise should be:

  1. Anerobic (something that makes you out of breath)
  2. Fun (so you continue doing it)
  3. Social (to boost mental processing)

The obvious conclusion is to play a team sport like basketball, soccer, or hockey.

How often should you exercise?

Again, the science provides no concrete answer. But from my own experience, the best exercise is something you like doing, so you continue to do it over longer periods of time.

So if you're trying to find an exercise plan for ADHD, I suggest you first find something you enjoy doing. It doesn't have to be a team sport, and it doesn't have to be intense.

Once you find that, do it for at least 30 minutes, at least 3 times per week.

You'll be able to self-regulate once you get the hang of it.


Exercise is universally shown to help both children and adults with their ADHD symptoms.

So just do it.

Find something you like and that you're capable of, and do it at least three times per week.

It's as simple as that.

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