Movement Therapy: Small Amounts of Exercise Can Boost Mood in Adults with ADHD

Researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise increases motivation, happiness, and productivity.
ADHD News Feed | posted by Devon Frye

Published June 23, 2016

"Think of exercise as medication,” says John Ratey, M.D., an expert on the positive effects of physical activity on the ADHD brain — referring, of course, to exercise’s longstanding reputation as an effective non-medical treatment for managing challenging ADHD symptoms like distractibility and forgetfulness.

Now, a new study finds that just a small amount of exercise can go even further than previously thought: working out at a moderate intensity for as little as 20 minutes could help boost mood, motivation, and concentration in adults with ADHD.

The study, published in the June 2016 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, looked at 32 otherwise healthy male subjects between the ages of 18 and 33. After working out on a stationary bicycle for 20 minutes, the subjects completed a brief task requiring focus, while researchers measured their leg activity (a sign of restlessness) and questioned them on their mood, motivation, and energy levels. The following day, the patients completed the same task after sitting quietly for 20 minutes, to serve as a control.

When they tackled the task after exercising, the men demonstrated significantly more energy, less fatigue, and more motivation than they had on their sedentary day. This suggested to the researchers that even a short burst of moderate exercise — regardless of the subject’s previous track record with physical activity — can create a physiological change in the brain that can boost performance on tasks that are normally hindered by ADHD symptoms.

Intriguingly, the men’s actual score on the task stayed relatively level, regardless of whether or not they exercised before completing it. But on the day they rode the bike, they simply felt better about completing the task, suggesting that the real power of exercise may lie in its ability to change your outlook and perspective.

"The reduced feelings of confusion and increased motivation to perform a cognitive task suggest that other types of acute exercise also may benefit cognitive performance," said Kathryn Fitz, a doctoral student who co-authored the study. Further research would likely need to expand the types of exercise that subjects completed, to see if the results were even stronger with a more engaging workout. "We speculate that a different mode or duration or intensity of exercise, other than a boring cycle ride in a sterile lab, may show larger cognitive effects for those suffering from ADHD symptoms," said Fitz.

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