Exercise and the ADHD College Student – ADDA – Attention Deficit Disorder Association


“A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.”

– Dr. John Ratey

And Dr. Ratey ought to know! The illustrious neuropsychiatrist from Harvard Medical School is the author with Dr. Ned Hallowell of the “Driven to Distraction” series and is one of the world’s leading authorities on the brain-fitness connection!

Exercise elevates your mood – which antidepressants such as Prozac do – and improves attention and concentration – which Ritalin does.

More and more professionals are recommending exercise as a treatment for mood and attention-related challenges such as ADHD, depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

Benefits of Exercise

Physical exercise turns our brains on!  Our brains are more active during exercise than any other activity we engage in. Exercise is natural way to trigger the brain chemicals so helpful in managing the symptoms of ADHD.

Exercise improves our memory and helps our brain learn new habits, routines, and facts. Exercise promotes sleep and is a natural depression fighter.

The executive area of the brain – the part that controls activities that people with ADHD often find challenging such as planning, prioritizing, breaking down tasks into manageable steps, organization, memory, mood, motivation and follow through – is switched on during exercise, and the effects last for some time after we stop moving.

Exercise makes your brain better in so many ways, so it’s a “no-brainer” decision to find ways to work more exercise into your day!

Best Kinds of Exercise

The best types of exercise encourage the development of connections between parts of the brain and in addition, stimulate the brain to release neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that improve the symptoms of ADHD). What are the most effective types of exercise for managing the symptoms of ADHD? The activity:

  • Is an aerobic activity – your heart and breathing rates are higher than normal
  • Involves making plans, making quick changes and remaining alert
  • Involves cooperation with others
  • Has personal meaning for you
  • Is enjoyable and fun!

Some examples of exercises that have these characteristics are dancing, soccer, tennis, gymnastics, martial arts, running, walking, juggling and Tabata (a high intensity exercise that you engage in for intervals of 4 mins – there is an app for this if you are interested in checking it out).

Some other activities that produce almost as much brain-benefit are weight training, jumping rope, and balancing activities of all kinds.

Challenges to Getting Enough Exercise

People with ADHD often struggle with tasks that seem routine, boring, or repetitive. The key to success is to make exercise an “experience” you look forward to rather than something dreaded you avoid at all costs! So don’t take the mindset of “I’ve got to exercise.” This will encourage you to avoid your routine. Instead, concentrate on choosing activities that you really enjoy so exercising will be fun!

Most of the time, exercise will be more enjoyable if other people are involved. Interacting with others is also better for your brain development because your executive brain gets a superior workout when you interact with someone else. For several reasons, the best exercise routines are usually social encounters!

If your chosen activity isn’t social, it helps to pair the activity with something that stimulates your brain. For example, listening to music, reading a book, or watching TV while walking on a treadmill keeps your brain stimulated during the repetitive activity.

Any activity you choose will be more motivating if it is tied to your values! Are you passionate about preserving the environment – then volunteer for clean-up duty. If you’re committed to social causes, walk for the cure. You get the idea – if it matters to you and it involves physical activity, you’ll be more likely to keep at it and get the benefits of regular exercise.

If you exercise in an environment that’s conducive to stimulation and fun, you can exercise for much longer periods at a time! Focus on finding something you look forward to and something that keeps your mind occupied. Focus on finding an activity where exercise is a secondary consideration and enjoyment and connection to your values is the primary attraction for you.

Working Exercise into Your Day

You’ll have better clarity and regulation skills if you break your day up with regular bouts of physical activity. Add movement into your day by climbing stairs, parking farther from the entrance, and engaging in quick exercise routines. Building movement into your day will improve your executive control skills, make it easier for you to concentrate and make you happier!

The bottom line is – do something meaningful, do it with others, do it almost every day, and HAVE FUN!

Now go do something fun and energetic so you can focus, follow-through and feel good!


Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years.  She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.

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