Can Exercise Help Adult ADHD?

Can Exercise Help Adult ADHD

Can Exercise help Adult ADHD? ADHD is a common mental health issue in children, but it also affects adults In fact, around 13% of men and 4.2% of women will be diagnosed with ADHD in their lifetime. All told, about 1 in 25 people over the age of 18 have ADHD. Most people think of ADHD as affecting children, but adults suffer with it too.

Although there are medications that treat ADHD symptoms, the side effects make ADHD prescriptions a double-edged sword. In some cases, the side effects outweigh the benefits. What if there were a natural way to ease the symptoms of adult ADHD, one that didn’t require a prescription or cost a fortune? The answer may lie with exercise.

Exercise for ADHD

Can exercise help men and women with ADHD better control their emotions and impulses and be less distracted? There’s evidence that it can. In one small study, researchers found that people with ADHD performed better on a task that required attention. The participants completed the same task while in a sitting and while walking at a moderately brisk pace on a treadmill.

The subjects who performed the task while walking had fewer errors and faster reaction times. But why? One theory is that adults with ADHD need more arousal to activate their attentional system to complete a task. Activity, such as walking on a treadmill, provides the extra stimulus they need to get a task done with fewer errors.

 Even people without ADHD claim that exercise clears their head and helps them deal with stress. However, physical activity may have special benefits for adults with ADHD. When you exercise, biochemical changes take place in the brain that helps alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. For example, research shows exercise boosts levels of a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, called dopamine. Some research suggests that ADHD symptoms arise from dysfunction in the brain’s dopamine system.

 But that’s not all. Exercise releases other hormones and neurotransmitters too, some of which are affected by ADHD prescription medications, like Ritalin. Therefore, exercise may mimic some of the effects of ADHD prescription drugs.

 Another known benefit of exercise is regular workouts increase levels of another protein called brain brain-derived neurotrophic factor. (BDNF). BDNF plays a key role in memory and learning, and people who have ADHD tend to have less of this chemical in their brain. BDNF also helps form new connections in the brain and may play a role in enhancing brain health.

Improve Impulse Control

People with ADHD often have problems with impulse control. Studies shows physical helps with control of impulses, self-control, and delayed gratification. These benefits help people with ADHD better manage their impulses. Plus, exercise is a way to blow off steam and release frustrations. It’s a natural for people who have pent-up energy to burn. Plus, there are the other health benefits of exercise that make it an appealing treatment for ADHD.

Aim for Exercise Variety

People who have ADHD may benefit more from engaging in more than one type of exercise. Boredom can be a factor for people with short attention spans, so running on a treadmill every day or pedaling a stationary bike may not cut it. An alternative is to engage in a variety of activities that involve movement, like hiking, running, kickboxing, and rowing provides mental and physical stimulation. Even playing motivating music can help adults with ADHD stick with working out.

Why not take that workout outside? Outdoor exercise is especially beneficial for ADHD since nature has a calming effect. One study in children found being in outdoor “green” settings with lots of trees and grass reduced symptoms of ADHD. Other research shows exposure to nature decreases impulsivity and lack of attention, two common traits of people with ADHD.

The Bottom Line

Exercise, especially outdoor physical activity, is a smart prescription for adults with ADHD and one that’s under-prescribed. Staying physically active offers a host of other health benefits too, so more movement could be just the thing adults with ADHD need to better manage their mental and physical health.


Rassovsky Y, Alfassi T. Attention Improves During Physical Exercise in Individuals With ADHD. Front Psychol. 2019;9:2747. Published 2019 Jan 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02747 “Study Uncovers Unexpected Exercise Perk That Pays Off Big Outside of the Gym”

Mehren, A., Özyurt, J., Thiel, C.M. et al. Effects of Acute Aerobic Exercise on Response Inhibition in Adult Patients with ADHD. Sci Rep 9, 19884 (2019).

Kuo FE, Taylor AF. A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health. 2004;94(9):1580-1586. doi:10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580.

Kuo FE, Taylor AF. A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health. 2004;94(9):1580-1586. doi:10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580. “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” “ADHD by the Numbers: Facts, Statistics, and You”