“How regular exercise has become an effective treatment for my ADHD”
When the gyms shut during lockdown, writer Caroline Barry realised that she’d lost her best line of ADHD medication. Here she explores why exercise is such a powerful tool for maintaining mood, concentration and energy.
I don’t know at what point I became a ‘gym person’ but the transition certainly wasn’t borne out of a desire to lose weight or build a bubble butt. I got into fitness as a form of ADHD management.
I was diagnosed with ADHD aged 10. Growing up in rural Ireland in the 90s meant this was a rare diagnosis. No one really spoke about mental health issues, but I’m far from exceptional; the ADHD Foundation estimates that one in five adults is neurodiverse with conditions such as ADHD, autism or dyspraxia.
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Regular exercise is important for ADHD management
ADHD has a lot of symptoms that make life difficult for me. I grew up with an excessive amount of energy that was spent tumbling in gymnastics, running around the local farms and walking. As an adult, however, I find myself twitching, fidgeting, singing, and sometimes – despite feeling exhausted – having to go for impulsive walks because I have to move. My ADHD makes me impulsive, risk-taking and impatient.
When you have ADHD, your brain is lower in dopamine than neurotypical people are and we invest a lot of time into finding things that make more dopamine for us. That’s the chemical in the brain that creates feelings of pleasure and reward. When we work out, our systems get flooded with feel-good endorphins and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which leave us buzzed and happy. It’s no wonder, then, that exercise has been such an important part of my life.
Dr Tony Lloyd from the ADHD Foundation highlights that exercise is essential for cognitive functioning: “Daily habitual physical exercise is essential for good physical and mental health. Even a walk is proven to reduce anxiety and depression while improving general physical health.
“For those with ADHD, it is especially helpful because physical movement is the body’s natural way of producing a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that we need to concentrate, remember what we are learning, and it also plays a role in motivation.”
Fidgeting as a way of increasing dopamine levels
He tells Stylist that the reason people like me are hyperactive is that our bodies are compelled to move so that we can produce more dopamine. “Children who fidget or adults who need to get up and move about… are doing so because that’s how their bodies help their brains to focus and maintain interest.”
My ADHD coach, Anastasia Galadza, is in agreement with this but states that we need moderation – something that I don’t do well. “It helps to see regular exercise as a sort of medication,” she explains, while going on to stress that sticking with daily movement can be difficult for some people with ADHD. “Exercise serves to create a routine in the day.”
She also says that while more intense forms of movement might be great for elevating the heart rate and getting those neurochemicals activated, even simple, slow exercise can be hugely important and beneficial. “Going on a walk or doing simple movements can have benefits. Don’t get caught up in the ‘all or nothing’ mentality as you don’t need to be running marathons.”
Lockdown took away my ADHD medication
Like everyone, there are activities I’m good at and enjoy and certain exercises that just aren’t for me. I struggle to process sequences, so dance routines that require complicated steps are out. I once left a Zumba class in tears because I was the only person who couldn’t master the routine.
More fast-paced classes, however, suited me perfectly. Despite finding choreography a nightmare, boxing seemed to be something that came far more naturally and there was nothing more satisfying than hitting a bag. I joined a spin class where all I had to do was pedal quickly. I didn’t feel upset because others were moving more effortlessly. I felt sweaty, exhausted and blissfully calm. The gym became a haven.
And then lockdown happened.
It wasn’t until the gym shut down that I realised the link between exercise and my ADHD management. I live in a small house where there is no room for a home gym or workouts, so while the world shuttered to a halt, I kept working and tried to ignore the news reports.
Improving decision-making with movement
While the stereotype of ADHD is that we have no concentration, I’ve found the opposite to be true. If I am interested in a subject, I become absorbed to the point where I don’t notice anything else around me – even forgetting to eat. As a journalist, story chasing gave me a short bit of dopamine during the pandemic, so I replaced the gym with work. I would frequently find myself writing until the early hours of the evening and going straight from desk to bed.
This worked well for a few months as I flew through articles. I replaced sleep and time off with work, not noticing that I was getting increasingly anxious, tired and overwhelmed. In December, I finally crashed. While on a walk, I burst into tears, letting out months of ignored exhaustion, overwork, fear and bottled-up energy. Recognising that I was on the verge of a breakdown, I went to seek help.
If exercise is good for cognitive function, the lack of movement perhaps explained why I struggled to register when to down tools and rest. ‘Cognitive function’ includes decision-making and serves a critical role in our everyday behaviour. My brain recognised the small hit of dopamine coming from writing and failed to balance it with sleep or rest.
People with ADHD think faster after moving
One small-scale, recent study shows just how powerful movement can be on the way our brains function. Researchers got a group of people (half of whom lived with ADHD) to do a test before and after completing five minutes on a treadmill. The ADHD group recorded faster reaction times and fewer errors in comparison to the non-ADHD participants. This led the experts to conclude that ADHD concentration could be ‘enhanced by arousal’ through engaging in sport.
Having realised just how much my own capacity for thinking clearly and feeling good is impacted by exercise (or the lack thereof), I’ve now returned to the gym. It’s been so freeing to be able to walk away from my desk and move – as it’s been for so many others.
Exercise is a key part of my daily medication, and I’m now – finally – honing the skill of working out when to move, when to work and when to rest.
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