ADHD series part VI: exercise-the other medication for ADHD

by | Oct 8, 2015 | Blogs, Others

ADHD series part VI: exercise-the other medication for ADHD

​Your child with ADHD is getting ready to leave for school. You’ve gone through the mental checklist. Breakfast, clean shirt, backpack, medication…check.

Did 10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise make your morning checklist?

Dr. John Ratey an associate professor at Harvard, suggests it should. Dr. Ratey stated “Even very light physical activity improves mood and cognitive performance by triggering the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, similar to the way that stimulant medications like Adderall do.”

Exercise is critical to their physical, emotional and mental health.

Your brain is waiting on updates

“Well, have you got the recent update?” This is my wife’s answer each time I complain about my smartphone being slow. I’m always several days behind her and she has become my personal IT help desk. I tell her “no I haven’t, I’d have to update something EVERY DAY!”. This is when she lovingly takes my phone when I’m not looking and goes through all of the important updates for me.

Our brains operate in similar fashion. Most mornings our brains are operating at below average. We don’t think as clearly, we’re irrational and not quite ready to start interacting with people. Our brain needs a jump start in the morning, hence the multi-billion dollar coffee industry.

We aren’t going to give our children the grande sized mocha latte each morning,but we have other choices to jump start their brains.

Dr. John Ratey suggests that most professionals believe that exercise is equally important to medication in treating ADHD. “Think of exercise as medication…for a very small handful of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it may actually be a replacement for stimulants, but, for most, it’s complementary—something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.”

A daily dose of exercise will improve brain functioning

When children exercise, their brains release chemicals called neurotransmitters, including dopamine and norepinephrine which help with paying attention and thinking clearly. On average, children with ADHD often have less dopamine than usual.

When children are prescribed a stimulant medication, the medications work by increasing the availability of dopamine in the brain. Simply put, a short period of exercise can have similar effects as the stimulant.

Exercise can improve the following areas related to the brain:

  • Enhance working memory
  • Improve executive functioning. The set of skills needed to organize, plan ahead, and remember details.
  • Improve impulse control and reduce compulsive behavior.
  • Increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. That’s a protein involved in learning and memory. (Web MD)
  • Boost Endorphins-the hormone-like compound that regulates mood, pleasure, and pain.

Dr. Ratey further explains, “These brain chemicals affect focus and attention, which are in short supply in those with ADHD. When you increase dopamine levels, you increase the attention system’s ability to be regular and consistent, which has many good effects,” such as reducing the need to search out new stimuli, meanwhile increasing awareness.

The Naperville experiment

Dr. Ratey thinks that schools are too often sacrificing physical education programs in order to focus on standardized curriculum and improve standardized tests. Ratey worked with the school district in Naperville, Illinois. He has encouraged them to implement a stronger focus on physical activity before and during school. The Naperville schools have had very impressive results.

The formula? Dr. Ratey took a Saturday and invited school teachers, staff and administration to an exercise demonstration. He showed them a specific jumping jack exercise that takes 90 seconds. He encouraged the school to do this exercise on a daily basis with their children, several times if needed. For students who had depressive symptoms, he encouraged them to add a 10 minute walk to their exercise plan.

In 2003, when 33 percent of students nationwide were overweight (it’s up to 35 percent now), the obesity rate in Naperville was just 3 percent.

Not only did the added emphasis on physical activity improve physical health, it helped skyrocket their schools to elite status academically. One school participated in an international science and math competition. The Naperville students placed No. 1 in the world in science and No. 6 in math.

After this case study was shared, other schools have taken notice and included exercise in the class room to improve academics.

Dr. Ratey shared the following story.

“A school in Colorado starts off students’ days with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise to increase alertness. If they act up in class, they aren’t given time-outs but time-ins — 10 minutes of activity on a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer. The result is that kids realize they can regulate their mood and attention through exercise. That’s empowering.”

Consequences of living an exerciseless life

According to Dr. Ratey, a lack of activity causes ADHD behaviors and symptoms. Ratey said “The sedentary life comes with consequences for our brains that go even beyond ADHD.”

He facilitated a study in 2006 that looked at morbid obesity in 4 year olds. In a comparative study against their normal-weight siblings, obese children had on average IQ’s that were 30 points lower. “Being unfit and unwell equals a decrease in IQ points, especially early in development,” Ratey said.

Even more disturbing and alarming, was that as MRI’s are done on 8, 9 and 10-year-olds who are morbidly obese, brain scans reveal an increased amount of brain lesions suggesting early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Get moving with these 6 exercise tips

1. Make it fun

2. Make it a daily activity, consistent time in the schedule if possible

3. Join them!

4. Have a dance party

5. Make it a contest

6. Incorporate exercise into everyday activities. Have them sit on a exercise balancing ball wall doing homework, eating dinner, or watching T.V.

That’s a wrap

The research on exercise and positive benefits on the brain is nearly endless. Exercise has been proven to improve symptoms of several mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, Alzheimers and ADHD.

Early research suggested that children need to exercise at a high intensity for a long period in order to receive positive benefits. Not true!

Research over the last several years shows this to be incorrect. The British Medical Journal stated “More is not always better with exercise. Even small changes in a child’s daily activities can have dramatic long-term results, as long as the activity makes them short of breath.”

How soon will children’s attention and behavior improve? It’s possible to to see an improvement in behavior immediately, but will have longer lasting benefits if exercise becomes part of their morning routine. Have fun!

Now, where are my kids. We’re going for a run…


ADHD series part I: Buckle up-an intro to ADHD

ADHD series part II: helping parents understand the ADHD diagnosis

ADHD series part III: An ADHD treatment regimen that works

ADHD series part IV: Preventive Teaching and intrinsic motivation

ADHD series part V: “What are you eating?” the ADHD/food connection

ADHD series part VI: Exercise-the other ADHD medication

ADHD series part VII: Improve ADHD by understanding emotional intelligence

ADHD series part VIII: Your inattentive child lost in the crowd

ADHD series part IX: Raising an ADHD generation

5 Ways to Help Your ADHD Child Calm Down


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