Take it Outside! Treating ADHD with Exercise

Exercising outside can alleviate symptoms of attention deficit for both adults and children. Learn how it works — and learn new ways to keep exercise fun and as fresh as the outdoors.

Getting exercise and being outside can both be benefitial to ADHD children and adults.

Not only do outdoor workouts provide variety and visual appeal, but there's all that fresh air to help stimulate brain function.

Rick Hodges, writer and teacher in Arlington, Virginia


Krista Jeremiah is an active 37-year-old adult with ADHD who loves to exercise, but don't ask her to work out surrounded by four walls. "I don't last two minutes in a gym," says Jeremiah. "It's just boring. You're not going anywhere!"

Jeremiah's reaction to indoor exercise is typical for people with attention deficit disorder, because a gym or spa offers little mental stimulation. The blank walls and repetitive machines turn some people off to exercise fast. After all, the very symbol of boredom is a treadmill.

Yet vigorous exercise is essential for adults and children with ADHD. It relieves stress, and studies show that exercise may positively affect brain chemistry — even alleviate depression.

Luckily, there's no rule that says you have to get fit indoors. After buying and dropping three spa memberships, Jeremiah went outside to keep her mind and body in shape. She rides a bicycle and plays Ultimate Frisbee, a team sport that resembles soccer played with a flying disk.

"It's all about motivation," says Stephen Putnam, author of Nature's Ritalin for the Marathon Mind: Nurturing Your ADHD Child with Exercise. Putnam went from heavy smoker to canoe racer as he found that exercise allowed him to control ADHD symptoms while avoiding the side effects of medication. From a fitness standpoint, he says, "an hour on a treadmill is just as good as on the street, but it's more stimulating outside."

The great outdoors offers many ways to keep things interesting while you get fit (and avoid expensive health club fees, too). Whether you choose a forested park, suburban streets, or sidewalks and skyscrapers, there's lots of change and visual appeal.

Exercise is particularly beneficial to young people with ADHD, says Putnam, and going outdoors offers them new options. "For kids who are independent, for kids who aren't team players, find an independent sport," he suggests. Sports like running or bicycling allow children to move at their own pace.

Shake a Leg!

Ever since humans learned to walk on two legs, they have invented new ways to move with them. Your legs are the key to outside exercise, whether you walk, hike, jog, sprint, climb, or blade. Add hand-held weights and your upper body gets a workout, too.

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To keep it interesting, vary your legwork with new locations. Downtown streets offer continually changing sights. In the country, secondary roads and trails take you literally off the beaten path. Find a historically or architecturally engaging area, and a walk becomes a stroll through time that keeps a child's imagination humming. Even the suburbs make good walking territory. Setting goals works well for suburban ramblers, like covering every single mile of a subdivision, meeting ten more neighbors, or counting the dogs you pass on your way.

Any kind of exercise at a steady pace is fine for burning calories. However, aerobic exercise is best for relieving ADHD symptoms, says Putnam. If your current exercise regime is already aerobic, push your endurance to a new level as you add variety to your routine with interval training. Instead of keeping a steady pace, work as hard or as fast as you can for a short burst, followed by a longer time — the interval — at an easier pace to recover.

Interval training can be incorporated into many kinds of exercise. For running or jogging, move at a comfortable pace for five minutes, then hit full speed for one minute, and repeat the cycle throughout your workout. Another way to set intervals is by distance — jog a certain number of city blocks, then sprint one or two. Some athletes pace intervals by following how their body feels. However you time your intervals, be sure to start and end your routine at a slow pace. (For more on incorporating interval training into your workout, log onto Sport Fitness Advisor.)

In interval training, it's essential to know your limits. Consult a physician or fitness expert to learn what your maximum heart rate should be and how to measure it. A simple sports heart monitor that attaches to your wrist like a watch can keep track of your pulse.

Mix It Up!

Here are some outdoor activities that adults and children with ADHD have found to motivate and sustain their exercise habit. Most of these can be enjoyed solo or with a partner, including a child. Some can lead to new ways of combining exercise with the outdoors — who knows, you may even invent a new sport!

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This article comes from the April/May 2004 issue of ADDitude.

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TAGS: Exercise and ADHD, Alternative Treatments for ADHD

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