Exercise & Health

Lose Weight — Without Losing Your Mind

For adults with ADHD, losing weight can seem all but impossible. Either you plunge right in to a new diet and exercise routine — and quit three weeks later — or you lack the motivation to get started. But if you’re on board this time, this game plan will help you reach your goals and be healthier for life.

Someone with ADHD standing on a scale to track their weight loss
Someone with ADHD standing on a scale to track their weight loss

Most people struggle to lose weight. But, according to some experts, it may be even more difficult for adults with ADHD, who may struggle with their weight because they have difficulty interpreting what their body is trying to tell them — just as they have trouble understanding what others are trying to tell them in conversations and social settings. Adults with ADHD may mistake feeling upset with being hungry, or they may overeat in a subconscious attempt to soothe negative feelings.

Another weight-loss challenge for adults with ADHD is staying focused long enough to stick to a diet and an effective exercise routine. Being easily distracted and impulsive can make it difficult to stick to any sort of project — weight loss and exercise included.

The good news is that experts have found preliminary results that show, in many cases, patients can control their weight by treating their ADHD and related symptoms. Combined with a healthy diet and exercise regime, overweight adults with ADHD can be on their way to slimmer days.

Here are tips on how to tip the scale in your favor when it comes to weight loss.


It’s a simple equation: Energy Consumed – Energy Burned = Weight. Consuming energy (calories and carbohydrates) without burning it off is like continuing to fill your car’s gas tank without ever turning on the motor. Eventually the tank will overflow. If it didn’t spill out of the top, the tank would eventually burst.

[6 ADHD-Friendly Exercise Tips to Help You Lose Weight]

Additionally, exercise can help control some ADHD symptoms by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These neurotransmitters play leading roles in regulating the attention system. With regular physical activity, adults with ADHD can raise the baseline levels of dopamine and norepinephrine by spurring the growth of new receptors in certain brain areas, further regulating attention.

If you’ve been sedentary for some time, you will need to gradually rebuild muscle tone, flexibility, and stamina. Talk with your doctor to make sure you can handle intense physical activity, but know that even just walking can be great exercise. As you lose weight, you’ll be able to go for longer walks.

Treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes all offer great cardiovascular activity, but they can also get boring very quickly. Interval training is the perfect solution to keep your interest. Interval training alternates a short burst of high-intensity exercise with bouts of low-intensity activity, burning more fat in 20 minutes than longer workouts do.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Warm up for five or 10 minutes on a stationary bike, treadmill, or on a run.
  • Then pedal, walk, or run as fast as you can, for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a minute or two of low-intensity activity.
  • Speed up again, then lay back. Do five or six alternations in 20 minutes.

[Free Download: Your Guide to a Healthy (and ADHD-Friendly!) Diet]

Set Positive, Realistic Goals

You didn’t put on 20, 30 or 100 extra pounds overnight, and it won’t come off that quickly either. It takes time to reverse the effects of years of over eating and inactivity, so talk with your doctor about setting realistic weight-loss goals.

When it comes to exercise, many adults with ADHD set goals that are unrealistically high — and unwittingly set the stage for failure. For instance, if you say that you’ll work out for 30 minutes but manage only 15, you may feel so discouraged that you skip your next workout session.

Here’s a better idea: First, decide upon the absolute minimum amount of exercise that you find acceptable — for example, working out for 15 minutes twice a week. Then set an easy maximum workout goal — maybe 30 minutes twice a week. Chances are, you’ll have no trouble reaching your minimum goal — and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll also exceed your maximum too.

Meeting your goals makes you feel good and encourages you to stick with your workouts. Also remember to increase your minimum and maximum goals periodically so you don’t get in a rut.

Have a Plan

Like most people with ADHD, you probably hate structure — especially when it comes to working out and doing other “chores.” So feel free to add some flexibility to your structure by scheduling not one but several workouts during any given 24-hour period. For example, you might schedule your weekend workout for 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. Sunday. That’s six chances. Odds are, you’ll make one of them.

If you told yourself that you would exercise before the end of the day, don’t allow yourself to bag it. Even if it’s 11:30 p.m., you still have time. If it’s impossible to go outside or make it to the gym, run in place or do some jumping jacks or pushups. Your goal is to end the day saying, “I did what I said I would do!”

Learn About Nutrition

Become an informed food consumer, rather then a grazer who eats without thinking. Research on weight loss shows that dieters who understand the importance of good nutrition are more likely to lose weight, and less likely to regain it.

Understand that crash diets or weight loss gimmicks often produce a boomerang effect that can leave you weighing more than you did when you started. Try to see your weight loss as part of a larger plan to improve your overall physical and mental health. A sustained weight change requires sustained changes in both your diet and your behavior. Are you really willing to live on nothing but grapefruit and poached eggs for the rest of your life? If not — and who would? — then you need eat balanced meals and make changes in your diet that you can maintain over time.

Track Your Progress

Hang up a calendar, and mark an X on the days you exercise. Keep it simple — no need to mark workout time, reps, laps, heart rate, and so on. Once a month, review what you’ve accomplished to get a sense of your progress.

Try writing down everything you consume during the day. You may want to include the number of calories or carbohydrates that each item contains, but don’t get hung up on numbers. Instead think of these numbers as point totals in a game that you intend to win.

Pick out some clothes that are only one size smaller than your current size and use them as a short-term goal. You’ll feel encouraged by your progress and motivated to continue on toward your ultimate goal.

Stay Motivated

Weight loss is easier with a partner to keep you on track and share in your pain and progress so recruit friends to go on your weight loss journey. You may even want to make things interesting with a bet for who will hit his/her target weight first. Money is a great motivator, and even the “loser” wins by losing weight.

Friends can also help when you need a boost. Many adults with ADHD start an exercise program with tremendous enthusiasm, only to lose interest within a few weeks. If that sounds like you, write yourself a letter of encouragement. Give it to a friend at the start of your exercise program, and ask her to “deliver” it back to you when your enthusiasm starts to flag.

It’s hard to develop regular exercise habits if a voice inside you keeps saying, “Why not skip today’s workout and do it tomorrow instead?” And for people with ADHD, there’s almost always such a voice. Don’t listen to it. Tell it to get lost, and you’ll soon be on your way to fitness.

[ADDitude eBook: The Diet & Nutrition Guide for Adults with ADHD]