The Benefits of Exercise in Treating ADHD

By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC

July 07, 2023

Adhd Exercise

Regular exercise has many benefits for our overall health and wellness. It is common knowledge that regular exercise can help us maintain a healthy weight, increase our mobility, and reduce our risk for various diseases.

What you may not have heard is that exercise can have significant benefits on your mental health. More specifically, new research has shown that exercise can be beneficial in treating and managing ADHD symptoms and other mental health disorders.

What is ADHD?

ADHD stands for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and is one of the most common mental health disorders in children. ADHD is also referred to as a neurological disorder and it impacts millions of people across the country. Symptoms of ADHD can not only range in severity, but they can also vastly range in type. More specifically, there are different classifications of ADHD that people can be diagnosed with including:

  • Predominantly hyperactive type
  • Predominantly inattentive type
  • Combined type

When you think of hyperactivity you probably envision someone with excess energy who has a hard time sitting still and moves frequently. Individuals with hyperactive type ADHD struggle with those symptoms. More specifically, hyperactive type ADHD includes the following:

  • Difficulty staying in one’s seat for an extended period
  • Excessive talking
  • Always on the “go”
  • Taps, fidgets, and squirms while in their seat
  • Climbs or runs during inappropriate times
  • Speaks at inappropriate times and blurts out answers
  • Interrupts others during conversation
  • Has trouble waiting their turn (waiting in line)
  • Difficulty playing quietly or relaxing quietly

To meet the criteria for hyperactive type ADHD, a child under 17 must regularly experience six of the symptoms listed above and individuals 17 and older must regularly experience at least five of the symptoms.

The inattentive type of ADHD involves a unique set of symptoms that you wouldn’t necessarily find in someone who has hyperactive type ADHD. Inattentive type ADHD refers to symptoms such as disorganization, difficulty paying attention, and difficulty staying focused and on task. As a person 17 years of age or older, you must experience five of the following symptoms to meet the criteria and if you are under 16, you must experience six of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty staying on task during activities that require focus such as extended reading periods, presentations, or conversations with others
  • Makes careless mistakes or ignores details of tasks
  • Difficulty with organization and time management
  • Easily distracted
  • Regularly forgets things or misplaces important items such as a wallet, keys, or phone
  • Forgets about important dates, appointments, and events
  • Dislikes and regularly avoids tasks that require prolonged focus and mental effort
  • Has difficulty following through on instructions given by teachers, bosses, family members, etc…
  • Difficulty making eye contact when speaking or listening

The combined type of ADHD includes symptoms from both the inattentive and hyperactive types of ADHD. It is important to note that only a licensed medical and/or mental health professional can diagnose you with ADHD. If you think you or your child may be experiencing ADHD symptoms, talk to your doctor.

How Common is ADHD?

ADHD is a common disorder in both children and adults. Researchers approximate that 8.2% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD.

While more research is needed on adult ADHD, below are some current statistics on child ADHD:

  • Researchers estimate the total number of children aged 3-17 years old diagnosed with ADHD is 6 million or 9.8% of the population
  • Girls are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys, with 6% of girls and 13% of boys being ADHD
  • Caucasian and African American children are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than Hispanic children
  • Approximately 50% of children diagnosed with ADHD also have a behavior problem
  • Roughly 33% of children with ADHD also struggle with anxiety symptoms

Causes of ADHD

Like most mental health and neurological disorders, it can be difficult to pinpoint one specific cause for the development of the disorder. Rather, several variables and risk factors can contribute to the development of ADHD and the exact causes are largely unknown.

However, research shows that genetics play a large role in the development of ADHD. Other possible risk factors for ADHD that are currently being studied include:

  • Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy.
  • Having a brain injury.
  • Exposure to environmental hazards such as lead during pregnancy or as a young child.
  • Low weight at birth.
  • Premature delivery.

ADHD Myths

You may have heard that ADHD is caused by consuming large amounts of sugar or by other family and environmental factors. However, research has yet to find a link between consuming too much sugar and ADHD. Sugar certainly doesn’t help symptoms of ADHD though!

Research has also not shown environmental factors such as poverty, family dysfunction, or parenting can cause the onset of ADHD. Additionally, if you have ADHD as a child, there is a strong possibility that the symptoms will resolve by adulthood. Most children who are diagnosed with ADHD end up growing out of it as they age and as their brain develops. In fact, 66% of children with ADHD do not show signs of the behavior as an adult.

How is it Diagnosed?

As previously stated, ADHD requires a formal diagnosis by a licensed medical or mental health professional. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be experiencing symptoms of ADHD. Your doctor will run many tests to rule out medical problems that may be contributing to the ADHD symptoms; These tests can include hearing and vision tests, sleep tests, and cognitive/developmental tests.

Your doctor may ask you to complete a checklist that identifies symptoms of ADHD. If a child is being tested, the checklist will be completed by the parents and/or teachers. Your doctor may refer you to an ADHD or mental health specialist.

Standard Treatment Methods for ADHD

Each person’s treatment plan is different and is created based on your unique needs. Together you and your doctor or mental health professional will create a treatment plan that is suitable for you. Factors that will be taken into consideration when creating your treatment plan include your age, symptom severity, environmental factors, and lifestyle. Generally speaking, a combination of behavior therapy and medications is used to treat ADHD.

In young children six years old and under, behavioral therapy including parent training in behavior management is recommended first. For children older than six, a combination of medication and behavior training is also recommended. Stimulants are used as the primary medication choice because they increase the availability of norepinephrine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Amphetamines and methylphenidate are types of stimulants used to treat ADHD and common prescription stimulants used in the treatment of ADHD include Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall.

Exercise and ADHD

There is no denying the benefits that exercise has on our physical and mental health. The benefits of exercise are undeniable yet many times exercise can be overlooked as an important component of an effective treatment plan.

Limited research on exercise and ADHD is showing a link between physical exercise and a reduction in ADHD symptoms. Exercise has neurological and physiological benefits as a result of an increase in serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine which is similar to how stimulants work in the brain.

Researchers theorize that exercise resolves the chemical imbalances in the brain which results in a reduction in ADHD symptoms and an improvement in behavior and cognitive functioning. While research on exercise and ADHD is limited, the research that does exist is promising and shows a connection between exercise and improved ADHD symptoms. Exercise has also been shown to improve other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression and is an effective way to manage stress.

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous or painful to be effective. Even a small amount of exercise incorporated into your routine can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you struggle with getting started or don’t know how to incorporate exercise into your regime, start small. Go for a 20-minute walk or complete a 10-minute routine. There are free exercise videos available on many online platforms that you can utilize. You can also talk to your doctor about strategies and activities that are appropriate for you.

Where Should I Go From Here?

Talk to your doctor if you think you may be struggling with ADHD or any other mental health disorder. Your doctor can assist you in obtaining an accurate diagnosis as well as help you create a treatment plan that addresses your symptoms.

Doctors can combine a variety of treatment options tailored for you including psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. For prescribed medication, you can save up to 80% on your medication by using the free prescription savings card offered by ScriptSave WellRx.

Jacquelyn B. began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2022). What is ADHD?
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Data and statistics about ADHD.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). What is ADHD?
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Treatment of ADHD.
  5. Braun, N. (2020). Physical exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder- evidence and implications for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Regulation, 7(1).
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Stimulant ADHD medications: Methylphenidate and amphetamines.
  7. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022). Physical activity is good for the mind and body.
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