Exercise & Green Time

Exercise and ADHD: Dental Floss for Your Brain

Exercise is one of the bests gifts you can give an ADHD brain. Learn about its psychological benefits here.

Person with ADHD running for exercise and ADHD.
Person with ADHD running for exercise and ADHD.

I hate to floss my teeth. Flossing is boring, and it takes too much time. But whenever I think about not flossing, I think of what my dentist once said to me: “You don’t need to floss all your teeth — just the ones you want to keep.”

Exercise is like flossing. It can be boring, and it takes a lot of time. What’s more, it can be difficult to do, especially as I grow older. But I know that exercise is one of the best gifts I can give to my ADHD brain.

We all know that physical activity is great for the body. But exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, stimulating the release of compounds that the brain just loves, including growth factors and a substance known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which promotes growth of new brain cells (neurons). These substances keep the brain operating at peak efficiency.

Dr. John Ratey, my longtime friend and co-author, has spent decades studying the psychological benefits of exercise. He’ll tell you that regular exercise is a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety agent. He’ll tell you that prolonged, strenuous workouts raise bloodstream levels of endorphins, the naturally occurring opiates that diminish pain while boosting feelings of well-being. And he’ll tell you even that walking can be enough to boost levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates our sensations of reward, motivation, and attention.

Physical activities that involve coordination, and complex movements — such as martial arts, dance, and basketball — cause connections to form between neurons in the cerebellum. That’s the region of the brain that controls, among other things, our social interactions. It’s not going too far to say that exercising can, ultimately, help us make friends.

[Build Your Muscles, Build Your Brain]

What does this mean for people with ADHD? It means that we must think of exercise as an essential component of treatment — something that makes it easier to sustain mental focus for extended periods of time. Would you skip a trip to your doctor just because you had a tight schedule? Of course not. You shouldn’t skip exercise either.

If your child has ADHD, make sure his school doesn’t discipline him by keeping him inside during recess or forcing him to sit in detention. When your child misbehaves, his penalty should involve something that is both productive and physically active, like raking leaves or running errands.

Finally, make sure that your child isn’t banned from athletics because of poor academic performance. Both sports and academics are essential for a child’s development. Do schools deny unruly children academic instruction because of poor performance in athletics?

It’s best to exercise about 30 minutes a day. You don’t have to run marathons or become a body builder. And you don’t have to go to a gym; evidence suggests that brisk walking will do the trick, for both kids and adults. But whatever exercise you do, schedule your workouts into your daily routine. Otherwise, you may find yourself squandering your time in pointless meetings (which I think of as “adult detention periods”), when you could be out doing something much more beneficial.

Edward Hallowell, M.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

[Muscles and Manners at the Gym? No Sweat!]