Exercise as Medication
Most of us don’t think of exercise as medication. But for individuals with ADHD, it can have medication-like benefits.These include:
- Improved attention
- Better able to manage time
- Enhanced organizing and planning skills
- Improved memory and recall
Several recent studies add scientific support to the notion that exercise can positively impact ADHD symptoms. For example, a study in 206 university students found a link between the total amount of daily exercise performed and their levels of executive function.
How does this work?
The Neurochemical Boost from Exercise
When you walk, run, or do other types of exercise, your brain releases several important chemicals, including:
- Endorphins – These are hormone-like compounds that regulate mood and your experience of pleasure and pain.
- Dopamine – This neurotransmitter can help keep the brain’s attention system functioning at a regular and consistent level. It can also reduce the desire for novel stimuli, thus increasing alertness.
- Norepinephrine- This neurotransmitter has been shown to play a role in a person’s mood and ability to concentrate.
- Serotonin– This neurotransmitter influences mood, social behavior, sleep, and memory.
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – BDNF is expressed in the hippocampus and plays a crucial role in brain development and plasticity as well as in learning and memory.
Together, these brain chemicals affect focus and attention. By increasing the levels of these chemicals in the brain, exercise acts like a medication to improve your executive functioning.
The Right “Dose”
So, how much exercise is enough to get these benefits?
You can think of your exercise session as a treatment “dose.” The effects of exercise have a limited duration, just like any medication you might take. Experts recommend at least one 30- to 40-minute activity a day, 4 or 5 days a week.
The exercise you choose is up to you. However, it should be moderately intense to get the maximum benefit. This means that during your workout:
- Your heart rate goes up
- You breathe harder and faster
- You sweat
- Your muscles feel tired
Everyone’s ability to engage in exercise is different. Talk to your doctor if you’re uncertain about how intense your exercise should be. Devices like a heart rate monitor can be useful to ensure you are getting enough exercise without overdoing it.
When you make the decision to get started with a regular exercise plan, be sure it is something you enjoy, and work out a plan to help you continue. Here are some factors to consider in choosing what type of exercise is best for you.
The benefits are well worth the effort. Exercise won’t replace your ADHD medication, but it will support all the other forms of treatment for your ADHD symptoms.