Recent research confirms that regular exercise can have benefits for individuals with executive function disorders such as ADHD.The benefits come from the way that exercise affects brain function.
Exercise and Executive Function – The Inside Story
During exercise, the brain produces more dopamine and norepinephrine. Both of these brain chemicals play vital roles in thinking and attention. In this sense, exercise has an affect similar to that of stimulant medications.
Exercise may also increase:
- Vagal nerve stimulation
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a protein involved in learning and memory
- Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to form or modify neural connections
- Blood flow to the brain
In addition, many of these effects may be cumulative. When you exercise regularly over time, the brain adapts to these changes to produce better results.
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 Benefits of Exercise
Exercise has many health benefits. It can help you:
- Reduce your weight and maintain a healthy weight
- Reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer
- Maintain blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a normal range
- Strengthen your bones.
But for individuals with conditions that affect executive functioning, exercise can also:
- Ease stress and anxiety and provide a sense of greater well being
- Improve impulse control and reduce compulsive behavior
- Enhance working memory
- Improve the ability to plan, organize, and remember details
- Increase focus and attention
Considerations in Setting Up an Exercise Routine
There are a number of factors you may want to consider in setting up an exercise regime, including:
- Your personal interests and motivation
- The frequency and level of exercise
- Team vs. non-team types of exercise
- Any physical constraints you might have.
And, of course currently, any limitations imposed by the ongoing pandemic.
Here is some additional information on selecting the exercise program that could work bet for you.