How Can Exercise Improve ADHD Symptoms?

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We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, but did you know that it is also good for your brain?

John J. Ratey, MD is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of eight books including the bestseller, "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain."

In his book, Dr. Ratey explores the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance. He was kind enough to respond to a few questions.

Exercise for Treating ADHD In Children and Adults

There are many reasons for exercise in ADHD. Exercise almost immediately elevates dopamine and norepinephrine and keeps them up for a period of time so that it acts like a little bit of Ritalin or Adderall. It also helps to still the impulsivity and still the cravings for immediate gratification as it works to wake up the executive function of the frontal cortex, which in turn allows for the delay, better choices, a bit more time to evaluate consequences.

Exercise and Affect on Learning

Exercise affects learning in three ways:

  • Exercise improves the learner. Their senses are heightened, their focus and mood are improved, they’re less fidgety and tense, and they feel more motivated and invigorated.
  • In addition to improving your state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving your brain’s potential to "log in" and process new information. Exercise creates the environment for our brain cells to wire together, which is the basic building block of learning. One of the key ingredients that exercise increases is BDNF, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or what I call Miracle-Gro for the brain — as it truly is fertilizer.
  • Exercise is also perhaps the best way to increase neurogenesis, which is the making of new neurons that happens on its own daily. The process is pumped up greatly after we exercise, by releasing factors to encourage the process by which our stem cells divide and then provide a healthier internal environment for them to grow up to be functioning nerve cells.

Exercise and Its Affect on Stress Levels and Mood

Exercise helps to heighten the response to stressors — that is, we become less stressed by the same stressors when in a fit condition. We don’t turn on the initial stress response as quickly. Also, we make our cells more resilient in a process that is called “stress inoculation.” By stressing the cells a bit, we build up internal resistance to future stressors so we make armies of our own antioxidant enzymes, repair and rebuild proteins, and improve the toxic waste disposal crews inside of our nerve cells.

The mood is improved by raising the levels of the same neurotransmitters that we target with our antidepressants: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. All get jacked up by exercise. BDNF is itself an antidepressant; exercise reenergizes the depressed brain to do its job of adapting to the environment.

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Article Sources

  • John J. Ratey, MD. Personal interview/correspondence. 18, March 08.