Exercise & Health

6 ADD-Friendly Tips for Starting and Maintaining an Exercise Program

From setting realistic goals to ignoring your “inner saboteur,” these exercise strategies will help you keep your body and mind healthy.

Fitness Advice for ADHD Adults: Exercise Help
Fitness Advice for ADHD Adults: Exercise Help

Eager to get going on your new exercise regimen? Once you start seeing results, you’ll find it easier to change your eating habits, as well. Over the years, Boston-based attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) coach Nancy Ratey has helped dozens of clients develop and stick with exercise programs. Here are six stick-to-it strategies that she finds particularly helpful.

1. Make exercise a “win-win” game.

Many people with ADHD set exercise 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 goal. Meeting your goals makes you feel good and encourages you to stick with your workouts. Remember to increase your minimum and maximum goals periodically.

[The ADHD-Friendly Eating Plan]

2. Hold yourself accountable.

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 push-ups. Your goal is to end the day saying, “I did what I said I would do!”

3. Track your workouts.

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.

4. Write a letter.

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.

5. Schedule “backup” workouts.

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.

[Why You Crave Sugar and Carbs]

6. Ignore your “inner saboteur.”

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 with ADHD, there’s almost always such a voice. Don’t listen to it. Tell it to get lost.

Updated on May 31, 2019

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  1. I’d also like to add, we should try to fit exercise into our routines whenever possible for efficiency. I believe we can get most of our daily cardio in during our daily routines, without the need to go to a gym.

    -Ride a bicycle for running errands instead of driving.
    -Walk to the store instead of drive
    -Take the stairs instead of elevator.
    -Try a standing desk
    -Stretch while you read email
    -Perform Deskercize

    It takes me 30 minutes to drive down town and 40 minutes to bike. It’s like getting a 40 minute workout for the cost of only 10 extra minutes. It’s so much more effective use of my commute time.

  2. I’m sure this is all good advice for those who are higher functioning cognitively and in better cardiovascular shape than I was 15 months ago. I couldn’t think of motivating myself to go for 15 minutes, when 5 minutes on the elliptical or 3 minutes dancing in place left me out of breath, with rubbery legs, and in need of a nap. My wonderful endocrinologist said, “That’s OK…just go till you’re out of breath, and then take a nap if you need to. But before you eat again, do another 3 or 5 minutes. Just keep pushing 4, 5, 6 times a day, and soon you won’t need a nap.” She was right. Soon my Fitbit was recording 10,000 steps a day, even if I could still not do 10 minutes in a row.

    Within 3 months my resting heart rate had fallen from 74 to 61, and I could walk up steep hills without stopping for breath. Within 6 months–still just doing short bursts–I was up to 2 hours a day according to my Fitbit. Of course I can do 10 minutes in a row now…I’ve done as much as 30 minutes continuous. Most amazing to me is that after years of trying to get myself to stick to an exercise plan, I have been able to keep this up very consistently. Along the way, I have also added some resistance exercises, along with stretching and balance routines to balance out all the cardio.

    But I want to say something important about motivation. What has worked best for me is to set the bar very low AND KEEP IT LOW. I do not need to create any artificial opportunities for myself to fail. What I have is very low goals that I enjoy exceeding most of the time. But there are still many days when it is a struggle to go for 10 minutes at a time, and that is all I ever require of myself. And so, even though I now do more than 20,000 steps per day most days, the official goal is still only 10,000. Whether I hit that milestone at noon or 3pm, it gives me a little lift that makes me want to double it by the end of the day.

    I would encourage anyone who is unable to manage to make progress following the advice in the article to start much smaller and keep your expectations very low. For some of us, it is far more motivating to kick failure to the curb, and be able exceed our expectations day after day.

    Finally, I might mention that this was also the year I got back into downhill skiing in a big way after an absence of 10 years, and it was almost as much fun as when I was 14. I will turn 70 this summer.

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