I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Copper, attention coach owner of Dig Coaching and host of Attention Talk Radio, about the impact exercise has on ADHD symptoms and how ADHD adults can move from, “I know I need to exercise” to actually doing it.
What are some of the benefits of exercise for people with ADHD?
As everyone knows, there are physical benefits to exercise like increased muscle strength, flexibility and joint mobility. It boosts the immune system, improves the cardiovascular system and helps prevent chronic life-threatening conditions like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. But it also has profound psychological benefits such as reduced stress and anxiety. Regular exercise helps stave off depression.
Physical activity is particularly helpful for those with ADHD because it improves executive functioning and mental fitness. By increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain, exercise improves alertness, attention, cognition and motivation.
As I’ve learned from Dr. Roberto Olivardia, research suggests a high correlation between ADHD and obesity. There is a higher incidence of ADHD in bariatric patient groups. Exercise is obviously helpful in maintaining a healthy weight. For athletes with ADHD, exercise and participation in sports can help self-esteem. One of the universal benefits of exercise is its impact on sleep. For many it is a natural sleep aid, which is important to managing ADHD symptoms.
What impact does exercise have on your own ability to focus?
Exercise elicits a protein that activates neurons to produce neurotransmitters that are essential for those with ADHD. This directly impacts attention and cognition. Exercise in combination with sports is especially good. Tennis, basketball, and martial arts require engagement of the part of the brain linked to executive functioning and essential for the abilities to plan, sequence, and organize action. Put differently, the executive functioning brain practices organization as it successfully executes a task like returning a volley in tennis. I like to think of it as organizational drills for the brain.
What are some of the common barriers to starting an exercise routine?
As a coach I’ve learned that the single greatest barrier to exercise is the fact that it is a repetitive, boring task – classic characteristics of activities that adults with ADHD procrastinate on. Pressure is another barrier. Some people with ADHD thrive in the face of pressure, but others are paralyzed by it.
Many people with ADHD also have learning differences, which can impair a person’s ability to learn a sport.
What strategies do you suggest to overcome these barriers?
In real estate they say: location, location, location. From my perspective, when it comes to exercise, the slogan should be: social, social, social. Few people I’ve met or coached have been able to sustain exercise over the long haul in isolation. Those who have been successful sticking to regular physical activity often find motivation by exercising with others (work-out buddy, a class, personal trainer, attending a more social gym, workout groups, or going to activities where there is a social event before or after exercise). Some are able to exercise without others around when there is something stimulating going on making the exercise secondary, like walking on a treadmill and reading a book or sitting on a bike while watching the news. Though this approach is better than nothing, the workout is often less intense because it is secondary to reading or watching TV and therefore less active.
For those who struggle with pressure, I suggest non-competitive sports such as martial arts, dance, chopping wood, or hiking up mountains with a friend.
If you have learning problems (especially kids in sports) then get a personal coach (tutor) or ask the coach for extra instruction after practice. Learn how you learn best and communicate it to the coach or tutor. It might take more time to pick up or learn a new play or scheme, but with extra help it can work.
What special insight do you have regarding those with ADHD exercising?
Dehydration taxes the executive functioning brain. So staying hydrated is key. Keep in mind that stimulant medications actually dehydrate you more, like caffeine or alcohol. On top of that, the meds suppress your natural urge to drink. This awareness is key for those with ADHD!
You mentioned that people should focus on the social aspect of exercise instead of the exercise itself. Do you have any tips for finding opportunities to exercise with others?
When it comes to finding other people to exercise with, I have two thoughts. First, they are not going to call find you and call you out of blue. The key is to get out of the house. Be active in finding a social network that will support an active lifestyle. The more you get out, the more variety of your interactions, which directly increases your chances of finding an exercise buddy or environment.
Focus on social first, then exercise. For instance, if you like to cycle then go to your local bike shop and ask if there are any cyclist get-togethers. Like to run? Ask the about neighborhood running groups at the running store. The Susan B. Anthony Walk for a Cure is a social thing. Look up events like this in your area and see if they can hook you up with others. Volunteer to hand out water at your local 5K. The volunteers might not be able to run but perhaps they are interested in other sports. If you are near the Appalachian Mountains, contact your local trail club. They are often looking for volunteers to maintain the trail and you’ll be surprised at who you might meet and how intense walking up a 3,000 foot mountain can be! (Note: With a backpack on, coming down that mountain can be as intense as going up!)
What does Jeff recommend?
It is unanimous among researchers that exercise is a wonder drug and the most natural ADHD treatment plan on the planet. That is why this coach thinks everyone should have a psychoexercisologist!