Take It Outside! Treating ADHD with Exercise
Exercising outside can alleviate symptoms of ADHD for both adults and children. Learn how it works — and learn new ways to keep exercise fun and as fresh as the outdoors.
Reviewed on September 7, 2018
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.
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.
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!
- Walk the dog. Six legs are better than two. Get a dog, and you get an enthusiastic fitness partner who loves to walk and run, who will make you go outside and will keep you on a schedule. If you already have a dog, try walking different routes and upping the pace. Your dog will probably enjoy interval training, as well. If your dog wants to stop and, er, smell the roses, a faster pace may get him moving again. For a real challenge, try to beat your dog in a sprint someday!
- Ride a bike. Grownups can rediscover their childhood on a bike, and the kids can come along for the ride. A bicycle can provide a leisurely ride through the neighborhood or a hard and fast workout that gets the heart pumping and satisfies the need for speed. Either way, you can cover enough ground to keep the scenery interesting, especially if you vary your routes. With cycling, says Jeremiah, “you get into a rhythm and you can daydream a bit. In a car, you’re cut off from everything. On a bike, if you see something interesting, you can turn and go look at it.”
Interval training is easy to do on a bicycle, and it’s a thrill! A bike “computer,”an inexpensive device that attaches to your bicycle and tracks mileage and speed, can time the intervals. You can go for maximum speed on a flat surface, but for a real workout, try climbing hills. Don’t try to go fast up a difficult hill — stay in a low gear and concentrate on keeping balance and maintaining your pedaling at a consistent pace. And remember that the harder it is going up, the more fun it is coming back down!
- Climb a tree. Children are natural climbers, but adults who haven’t been up a tree in decades can enjoy it as a serious sport, too. The sport climbers at Tree Climbers International (TCI) in Atlanta say that people of any age can climb a tree for a whole-body workout — or just for the fun of it. TCI offers professional training on safety and equipment, and the recommendations you’ll find on their Web site, TreeClimbing.com, can also help backyard climbers stay safe.
Children can try new trees for a greater challenge. (Never let them climb too high or step on a branch that isn’t sure to hold their weight.) For adults, climbing trees is a great muscle workout, and because your whole body is involved, it becomes a cardiovascular challenge, as well.
- Take your regime outdoors. Who says you have to do push-ups or aerobics indoors? Almost any muscle or sports-conditioning exercise — including push-ups, squats, sit-ups, and sprints — can be done outside. Just find a safe and comfortable surface, like grass. Many parks have exercise courses, with pull-up bars and balance beams at intervals along a path to combine jogging with muscle conditioning. These courses are enticing for kids and adults alike.
Another popular park workout: tai chi, the slow-motion martial arts regimen. From its martial origins in China, tai chi has evolved into a meditative discipline that stresses relaxation over combat. A tai chi instructor may lead a group in moving in unison, like an army of Bruce Lees in slow motion. However, anyone can learn a basic routine and do it alone. Most people learn tai chi from videotapes or classes at recreation centers. (See PatienceTaiChi.com for more information.) Yoga is also good for stress, quick to learn, and perfect for outdoors on pleasant days.
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- Row a boat. Paddling a canoe, kayak, or rowboat works the upper body and lets you see the world from a new vantage point. If you want a vigorous workout, quicken the pace. Many state and local parks rent canoes and rowboats. If you want to expend your energy paddling the boat instead of lugging it around, you can rent a canoe at many parks. Or buy an inflatable craft that fits in the trunk of your car.
- Snap on some skis. In northern climates it’s hard to go outside in winter, much less exercise there. But a thick layer of snow isn’t a barrier, it’s an opportunity — to ski! Get out on some cross-country skis for full-body exercise and a tour of your winter wonderland. Rigorous cross-country skiing will keep you surprisingly warm, providing an exhilarating aerobic workout similar to power walking. In fact, it feels like walking, which is why beginners find cross-country easier to learn than downhill. If you must drive to find snow, you can rent skis at sporting-goods stores or at ski centers near trails or parks.
- Commute with muscle power. Go to work or school by walking, jogging, or bicycling. Getting the blood flowing before the start of the school day can improve a student’s focus and behavior. Adults who commute to work on their own power get two workouts each day, stress relief, and time to spend at home instead of at the gym. Many bikers and walkers who live far from work drive part of the way, then park and get on their bike or feet. Combine your commute with sightseeing, bird watching, or errands, and you’ll make the workout seem easier. If you can, stay on roads with the fewest autos and least fumes.
Whatever exercise you choose, the best part of taking it outdoors is making it your own — keyed to your timing, ability level, age, your family’s needs, and your thirst for adventure. To keep your routine from getting routine, rotate different kinds of outdoor activities, and try a new one now and then. Make your workout work for you!