Exercise for ADHD
You know what it’s like to live in a world where everything’s familiar but nothing quite fits. Your mind whirs and your to-dos pile up to the sky. You have hyper-focus in moments of intense interest and intellectual stimulation but doing mundane work is like treading water while holding a heavy weight. Your never-ending stream of thoughts makes it hard to connect future and past. That’s why If it’s not in front of you, it may as well be forgotten. It’s also why you pile papers high on your desk—as well as tabs on your desktop. Your deep sensitivity means that the emotions of others impact you tremendously You experience highs of clarity and depths of frustration. You are aware of your potential but often struggle to harness it. It’s not easy but you’ve never known things any other way. Welcome to the world of ADHD.
If you don’t have ADHD, the above will give you some insight into what it’s like for those who do. If you do have ADHD, much of this will sound familiar. You also know that you’re someone with the power to do incredible things—and that the challenge is to put your whole mind behind them. I’m here to share some tools to help you to do just that. The brain leads the body
If you have ADHD, you need to take care of your brain before you will be able to fully take care of your complete physical health. On the other hand, you need to take care of your body in order to truly take care of your brain. It’s a messy, interconnected cycle—but that’s familiar territory.
Exercise is a habit that needs to be cultivated. The tools that exercise offers to boost mood and focus are incredibly important. Not just for the obvious reasons either. Your high sensitivity may be more impacted by fluctuations in day-to-day routines even more than you realize. That’s why it’s so essential to figure out what has a positive impact on mood and cognition—and then to double-down on that process. Movement is meditation
The paradox of meditation is that people with ADHD need it the most BUT are also the most likely to struggle with it. It’s like pulling mental teeth. So, if you’ve had trouble making meditation a habit, you’re not alone. The good news, though, is that seated meditation isn’t the only way forward. Once in motion, you are far more likely to be able to focus and practice the skills of mindfulness. This creates a positive feedback loop.
Increased levels of dopamine (characteristically low in people with ADHD) and noradrenaline improve mood, attention, and focus. Increased endorphins amplify enjoyment—an experience that is deeply important in developing new habits. Neglect enjoyment at your own peril. If you want to integrate a habit, it has to feel good. It’s that simple.
What the research says—and what I say
Most research on exercise for ADHD has been aerobic fitness. Aerobic exercise is a beautiful thing but is not inherently superior to other modalities. Each style of exercise has different strengths. The advantage of aerobic exercise —in research—is that it’s simpler to study. More complex options, such as strength training or coordination-intensive exercise are tougher to track and have simply been studied less. However, there is growing evidence around strength training and other activities that require great body awareness. I expect it all to become part of the total package of exercise for ADHD in the years to come.
Exercise as soon as possible in the day
Your mornings are the least subject to chaos. Even a two-minute mini-workout can become an integral part of your morning—slightly increasing your chances of success. In fact, having very low barriers to exercise is absolutely essential for people who are often running late or feel the pull of a thousand competing priorities. Committing to two minutes does not mean that you don’t have the option of doing more. Instead, it creates the opportunity to really develop a consistent habit—something that is particularly challenging for many of us. Celebrate at the two minute mark. And then add if you feel like it. Integrate mindful breathing Aerobic exercise is arguably the simplest place to integrate breath with movement. This could be via jogging or brisk walks or anything else that is traditionally considered cardio. I advocate away from hard for hard’s sake and—instead—to not exceed a level of intensity that creates irregular or strained breathing. Your job here is to simply pay attention to your breath as a focal point—just as you would with many traditional forms of meditation. You may also experience greater success with seated meditation after a bout of exercise.
Alternate between intensity and calm
Interval training is the easiest example here. Perform a highly intense interval and then focus on regulating your breathing as you rest. Instead of relying on the clock for recovery, focus on a return to regular, even breathing as soon as possible. This process of attunment and regulation is powerful mojo for regulating your own emotions. Practice a physically-demanding skill
There’s some wild stuff out there—from kettlebell juggling to the Indian gada mace. What they all share is a high-level of coordination and focus. These characteristics promote cross-talk between multiple areas of the brain—reducing anxiety and building the skills for focus in other parts of your life. Concentrate on boundaries
The exploration of sports psychology and mental toughness is fascinating. You can run your own self-experiments by challenging yourself to the point of discomfort and then flirting with those boundaries. Here’s a sample workout that embodies this concept: Workout #15
15 goblet squats
15 dumbbell floor presses or push-ups
15 bent-over rows or inverted rows Put 15 minutes on the clock and work continuously throughout. You may choose lighter weights or easier body angles at any time—even if that means dialling the weight down to something that you consider embarrassingly light. Change weights, modify difficulty, but do not stop moving until 15 minutes or up. This approach is unusual in that it is both very challenging and 100% doable. Your ability to dial challenge up or down gives you complete control and safety. The mental challenge of negotiating this process with constant movement will develop your focus and resilience.
There is no single exercise style that is appropriate for managing the symptoms of ADHD. However, some approaches will work better than others for your unique brain. Build habits, experiment, and track markers of mood and performance to help you find your ideal mix.