Executive Function Fitness for ADHD Folks

We all know exercise builds muscle and enhances endurance, making our everyday physical challenges so much easier. But getting started can be daunting, thinking about hours on the treadmill, running for miles and lifting heavier and heavier weights. Fitness can become an overwhelming proposition, and, more often than not, we give up before we start. Luckily, a quick Google search of “short exercise routine benefits” shows more and more studies proving that brief fitness routines are as effective as hours in the gym. The key to reaping the most benefit is consistency.

Think Consistency, Not Quantity

How does this relate to people with ADHD and their executive function fitness? It has to do with mindfulness. A study by Lidia Zylowska (UCLA) showed 78% of participants noticed a reduction of overall ADHD symptoms when they regularly used mindfulness practices, even practice sessions as short as five minutes. So far, research for EF/ADHD consistently finds mindfulness effective in increasing attention, working memory, self-monitoring, emotion/mood, conflict attention and impulse control. Think of mindfulness practices as short routines or “gym” sessions that exercise your executive functions. Performed consistently, mindfulness practices strengthen your executive function muscles and help you to be more mindful when you need to be. And, as with physical exercise, it isn’t important you do it perfectly the first time (or the second, or the third!) In fact, the “right” way to practice mindfulness is different for everyone, so really, there is no right, or wrong, method! Find what works for you, without judgment – the important thing is doing it.

Just Set Your Intention

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is paying attention to right now and just noticing the thoughts that emerge this moment. Mindfulness can happen anytime, anywhere. It is not necessary to empty your brain (and, let’s face it – how many ADHDers can actually do that?) Just pay attention to your anchor (some people use their breathing, their hands or feet, or the task at hand, such as doing the dishes) and intentionally draw your thoughts back to that anchor when they start to drift. The intentionality of bringing your attention back to your anchor is what’s important. Instead of pushing your thoughts away, pull your attention back to where it needs to be. Continue to practice this and you’ll strengthen your attention muscle. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to now, and you can do that whenever, wherever. As you build your attention muscle, you may want to attempt meditation. Meditations are specific exercises you can do to increase your mindfulness. Consider meditation like going to the gym to work out your attention muscle.

Ten Mindfulness Practice Tips for ADHDers

Here are some tips to get started with your own ADHD informed mindfulness practice:

  1. Be realistic: Don’t start with a 45-minute silent meditation. They aren’t for everyone anyway. As with any exercise, it’s best to start with short sessions – as short as one minute.
  2. Find an anchor that feels right to you – some people use their breathing, their hands/feet or certain sounds/music.
  3. Don’t expect to have an empty mind – just pull your attention back to your anchor when it starts to drift.
  4. If you like, you can start with guided practices specifically designed for people with ADHD. (ADHD-friendly, guided practices can be found at http://www.mindfullyadd.com/.)
  5. Try moving mindfulness practices (walking, etc.)
  6. Don’t pay attention to the “shoulds” – do what works for you. There is no “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, in mindfulness practice.
  7. Create a habit. Even if you can’t do it every day, consistent practice helps build your mindfulness muscle.
  8. If you get off-track and need to restart, find new resources to keep your interest and curiosity.
  9. Use cues rather than schedules to remind you to practice. Think of “when I/then I” cues. For example, “When I am at a stoplight, I practice mindfulness.” Individualize it: find a regular trigger and tie your practice to that. This way it becomes automatic rather than something scheduled that must be remembered.
  10. Find a mindfulness buddy and keep each other on track.
  11. Bonus tip: Keep your mindfulness practice top of mind by finding ways to make it fun: talk about it with other people, make small changes to your practice when you get bored (change where or when you do it, try a new practice resource, find fun props, etc.), keep a log of your practices.

You Can’t Get It Wrong

Design your mindfulness exercise routine, and hit the mindfulness gym on a regular basis. You’ll build your executive function muscles so you can spontaneously use those skills when you need them. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Build up your practice as you feel comfortable, without judgment. There is no right or wrong – so “lace up” your mindfulness routine and take the first step to executive function fitness for ADHD folks.

Casey Dixon, Dixon Life Coaching founder, reliably delivers results without judgment using science-based, innovative strategies for college students and professionals with ADHD. She is recognized as a Professional, Board, and Senior Certified ADHD Coach. She’s also the ADHD Strategist for MindfullyADD, a website featuring mindfulness practices for people with ADHD.


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      • Ellen Delap
      • May 27, 2017

      I appreciate the analogy to short gym sessions!

    1. Reply

      My favorite part: “There is no right or wrong – so “lace up” your mindfulness routine and take the first step to executive function fitness for ADHD folks.”

    2. Reply

      Mary, you are so right! I love the way you put that: “the practice – and the benefit – is in returning your attention to your anchor, repeatedly.” Instead of pushing thoughts away, I like to think of it as pulling attention back to the anchor.

      • joyce
      • May 31, 2016

      is not video game (like bubbleshooter) a sort of mindfulness?

      • Mary
      • May 25, 2016

      I recently took a short mindfulness meditation beginners’ course; I have attended other meditation courses in the past but never felt successful. What I learned in this course is that the mind is never “empty”, even for people who have been meditators for years; the practice – and the benefit – is in returning your attention to your anchor, repeatedly.

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