The TL;DR answer is 4000% yes. Studies show that next to medication, physical exercise is the next best way to manage the symptoms of ADHD. In fact, overall self care is a critical factor in brain health, mental wellness and all-round happiness. So, if you’re not yet working out and taking care of yourself for the benefit of your body, mind and spirit, you will be by the end of this blog post 🙂
My Exercise + ADHD Story
Back when I was 19 years old and over 200lbs, my ADHD was probably at its worst. I was a high school dropout, I couldn’t hold down a job, and I made really bad decisions in every area of life. I was a mess.
When I got tired of feeling invisible by men and insecure about how I looked, I took matters into my own hands and started jogging. Very slowly and very badly.
It hurt, I didn’t have the right clothes and I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had to do something to change. Eventually, what started out as an effort to lose weight, ended up improving my mental capacity, clarity and mood. As my eating and exercise habits improved, so did my academic abilities and work habits.
Four years later, I had finished high school, completed an undergrad and started a professional career - all the while, self-medicating my unknown ADHD with exercise (you can read my fitness & ADHD story here).
Honestly, I shudder to think of where I would be today if I didn’t start working out. Probably living under a bridge somewhere (I’m not joking).
Prioritizing Self-Care is Your ADHD Birthright
When my ADHD clients tell me that they struggle to exercise consistently, I share my personal story with them. Frankly, if you have ADHD, self-care needs to be your first priority every day. That’s not just exercise, but also hydration, sleep, stress management and of course, eating healthy.
As ADHDers, we pay a lifestyle tax for our “extra-everything” brain. This diagnosis comes with a Handle With Care sticker that shouldn’t be ignored (I learned this the hard way). I know it can be hard to put ourselves first, but you simply can’t show up as your best self without some extra TLC built into your daily routine.
How Does Exercise Help ADHD?
When you workout, your brain releases a number of neurotransmitters, and chief among them is the chemical dopamine - the same chemical that ADHD medications release in the brain.
How does this help your brain? It automatically improves blood flow to the brain which in turn, improves executive function and working memory. It also improves impulse control, vagal nerve health and helps to manage the stress and anxiety often induced by ADHD.
There’s so much bang for your physical buck when it comes to managing ADHD, it’s not even funny.
What Exercise is Best For ADHD?
The one you enjoy doing the most (or hate the least). I’d love to tell you there’s one specific fitness routine that’s ideal for managing ADHD, but that’s not how it works. We have interest-driven brains that run best on authentic enthusiasm. So if country line dancing or hip hop is the only movement you can muster, then that’s the best workout for your ADHD brain.
Optimizing Exercise for YOUR ADHD Brain
As I mentioned, the exercise you love to do is the best exercise for your body and brain. If you love different kinds of movement, all the better. The more variety in your routine, the longer you’ll stay engaged and also reduce the risk of injury.
If you’re brand spanking new to exercise and you don’t know where to start, I recommend trying a variety of things and seeing what sticks. I always recommend starting with home workouts, where you can risk looking goofy and the cost investment is low.
Try a mix of cardiovascular and non-cardio workouts to see what feels good in your body and stimulates your brain. Here’s a few examples:
ADHD-Friendly Cardio Workouts
Running - I love this couch to 5K beginner program
Speed walking or hiking - getting into nature is great for the heart and mind.
Aerobics or HIIT workouts - this is my favorite and it’s only 20 minutes
Cycling or spinning - We bought a spin bike 13 years ago and we love it. It’s not as fancy as today’s high-tech bikes, but it did the trick.
Non-cardio + Strength ADHD-Friendly Workouts
Yoga - I love a good online yoga class as it calms the mind while challenging the body.
Barre - Great for flexibility, strength and balance. It’s also a great low-impact cardio workout. Alo Moves has the best online barre classes.
Weight lifting - this requires some level of equipment, but it’s perfect for sculpting lean muscle and keeping the body strong. If you’re new to lifting weights, you’ll love this program (it’s an all-time favorite of mine).
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but a good place to start if you just want to experiment with different kinds of movement.
How often should you workout?
I recommend only working out on the days that you want to feel good (and I’m not being sarcastic). If I skip a workout, I feel like I cheated myself out of feeling energized, relaxed and focused. Research shows that our brains are most focused and alert 2 to 3 hours after a workout and quite honestly, that’s when I’m at my absolute best.
Should you workout every day?
I do. Or at least I make every effort to, even if it’s only a brisk walk. Any movement is good movement. Research suggests we should aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week (5, 30 minute sessions) of moderate intensity exercise. That means finding a workout that doesn’t deplete you so much that you need three days to recover!
So, Have I Convinced You to Workout?
I hope so. Whether you’re motivated to get started for weight loss or body composition goals, you will find that the mental and energetic benefits of a consistent workout practice will be almost immediate. Pay attention to how you feel post-workout. You should feel sweaty, invigorated and proud. If you’re feeling spent and exhausted, you’re going too hard too fast which is unnecessary and detrimental to your long term habit development.
The Bottom Line: Take your time, find what you love, and show up (almost) daily, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. The results will follow and you’ll feel amazing after every single workout.
Caren is a certified yoga teacher, fitness instructor and ADHD Coach. As the founder of The Fit Habit, she shares ADHD-friendly self-care, food & fitness inspiration, along with practical ways to foster mind + body wellness.