The Body-Brain Connection: How Fidgeting Sharpens Focus

Research shows that physical activity — even a little foot-tapping or gum chewing — increases levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain that control focus and attention. Learn how a subtle fidget may help block out distractions, fight boredom, and increase productivity.

Focus Factors: A little fidgeting may help ADHD adults and children stay on task.

"Focus!" "Mind over matter!” “You can do anything if you really want to!” “Just try harder!”

Any one with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) has heard these exhortations, and have probably shared them with others struggling to concentrate at work or focus at school. The ADHD brain is indeed a powerful force for success.

But we know that relying on the brain can be frustrating and, at times, demoralizing. Our ADHD brains aren’t our most reliable asset — allowing distractions to break our focus. But what if there were strategies that could prime our brains beyond “just trying harder”?

There are. Recent research suggests that the body affects the brain as much as the brain affects the body. In his recent book, Spark, John Ratey, M.D., shows that physical activity increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the way ADHD medications do. Both chemicals play a key role in sharpening focus and increasing attention.

Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., of Purdue University, studied the factors that help ADHD children succeed in the classroom. In ADHD and Education, she notes that attention “deficit” increases with the length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task. In other words, you tune out when tasks get boring!

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According to Zentall, an activity that uses a sense other than that required for the primary task — listening to music while reading a social studies textbook — can enhance performance in children with ADHD. Doing two things at once, she found, focuses the brain on the primary task.

Zentall calls these sensory-motor activities “distractions.” We call them fidgets — mindless activities you can do while working on a primary task. We’re not talking about wriggling in your seat. Fidgeting is more intentional. It’s pacing or doodling while on the phone or chewing gum while taking a test.

Multitasking for ADHDers

It’s true that many people are successful only when they do one thing at a time, but for adults and children with ADHD the opposite is usually true. We need to respect the fact that there is neural diversity, that different people have different ways of doing things — not from preference or contrariness, but from need.

Fidgeting works for many children with ADHD. Karen was surprised to find that her bright son, who had been doing poorly in high school, suddenly started getting As. While delighted with his grades, she couldn’t figure out what had changed. The only thing that was different was his wearing a hooded sweatshirt to school. She eventually discovered that her son was secretly listening to music on his iPod, under that hood. The music focused his brain and made a big difference in his classwork and test scores.

Mary, age 25, remembers that she had trouble sitting still and finishing homework in high school. Her mother found a solution: setting up homework stations around the dining-room table. Mary would stand at each station, working or reading as quickly as she could, until she got restless and moved on to the next station. Every night she raced around the table until her work was done. As an adult, Mary is using fidget strategies to help her get through medical school.


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