ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in Australia. Between 3-5% of primary school-aged pre-teens and approximately 11% of secondary school adolescents are affected. Whilst it has been proven that there is definitely a familial link for the condition, it is often difficult to tell which kids may be predisposed, as less than 25% of adults with ADHD get properly diagnosed.
ADHD treatment is largely limited to medication. These can have a diverse number of negative side effects, which can include: stunted growth, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, poor eating habits and even potentially cardiovascular issues.
However, one new study is suggesting that perhaps exercise can also be used to help improve the function of kids and adults suffering from ADHD. The research was conducted by the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. It took 32 18-30 year-old men, who, although they hadn’t been formerly diagnosed with ADHD, self-reported a significant amount of ADHD-related symptoms. The study had these men perform 20 minutes of cycling. After the activity, self-reported ratings of confusion, fatigue and depression had decreased.
The hypothesis proposed by the authors suggest that it may be possible for exercise to affect neurotransmitter release in the brain to help improve functioning right after exercise. The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes neurotransmitters as miniscule chemicals that alter the activity of the cells in the brain.
On a separate day, the volunteers were asked instead to sit down and rest for 20 minutes, to compare the effects to those of exercise. They were made to perform mental concentration tasks before and after the day of exercise, and the day of rest. Researchers looked for measurements such as leg movement (a potential sign of hyperactivity), changes in mood, changes in attention and self-reported levels of motivation.
Leg movements and the overall performance of the task didn’t improve after exercise, when compared to rest. However, the men felt better when performing the task after exercise.
Although the neurotransmitter theory and how it relates to ADHD is still controversial, the fact is most psychiatrists and psychologists are beginning to recognize the benefits of exercise for people with ADHD. It seems to be a black box that we know works; we just don’t quite yet know how.
It is also worthy to note that exercise carriers a lot less risk of adverse effects when compared to ADHD medication. For most people, the worst side effects of exercise is often just sore legs the following day or two. Also, for the most part, exercise is relatively cheap if not free! However, itt must also be cautioned that there is no evidence yet to suggest that exercise should fully replace ADHD prescription medication. It should be considered part of the treatment, but not the only modality. It has also been suggested that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may also be useful for this population.
This new research should really come as no surprise. Exercise, for the most part, helps everyone function better. It improves sleep, concentration, energy levels, focus, appetite and so many other areas of the brain. It is also extremely useful for combatting anxiety and depression. It will help not only those of us with ADHD, but those of us without as well.
So what are you waiting for? Join a team, sign up for a local gym or just take yourself down to the park for a walk or a run. Everyone can run and it doesn’t have to cost you a cent! And remember, that when you exercise, you are not only doing your body good, you are also doing your brain good.
John Sommersby writes on health related topics. Neuroscience and the healing of the brain is a particular interest of his.