Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Exercise as an Aid for ADHD

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With the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses and the questionable side effects of medications, what effects does exercise have on kids in the classroom for learning and implementation?  Rather than force a “be quiet” strategy to those with ADHD, ultimately setting kids up to become discouraged and frustrated, the exercise focus promotes physical literacy and understanding to the public about managing ADHD. Total inclusion of everyone allows the kids an opportunity to succeed and encourages mental wellness and health related quality of life.

What is ADHD, first of all? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed. (DSM-5): “ADHD is characterized by a pattern of behavior, present in multiple settings (e.g., school and home), that can result in performance issues in social, educational, or work settings. As in DSM-IV, symptoms will be divided into two categories of inattention and hyperactivity and impulsiveness that include behaviors like failure to pay close attention to details, difficulty organizing tasks and activities, excessive talking, fidgeting, or an inability to remain seated in appropriate situations”.

Statistically, for kids ages 4-17, approximately 11% (6.4 million) in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011.  In Canada, it’s 5% of kids who are diagnosed with ADHD.

The major effects of exercise will be found in inattentiveness, and hyperactivity and impulsivity.  Take for example, the case of Jackson, a 21 year old student who controlled his ADHD through the use of exercise, has seen the benefits in his academic career.  At one point, Jackson was on Ritalin, then moved to Adderall, Paxil, and Clonazepam.  Making only a 1.8 GPA at his college, he began running and continues to run 3 miles per day when he also weight trains, 6 miles on most other days.  His GPA went to a 3.9 and was able to transfer into the university he originally had hoped to get into.


In Colorado, an elementary school that has decided to include “time-ins”.  Rather than punish disruptive kids by making them stand in a corner in “time-out”, they are instead sent to the elliptical and bikes at the back of the room to exercise for 10 minutes before returning to their seat. This not only allows for the expenditure of energy, but it also relieves kids of the stigma that they are trouble makers in need of punishment.  It gives them an opportunity to be in control.  Additionally, with the dwindling funding toward physical education classes, this provides an opportunity to get in exercise in other ways.

While any exercise will do, aerobic exercise has been noted as being most beneficial for spending extra energy.  For additional focus on tasks, it is recommended that ADHD children get into activities requiring particular focus of refined motor skills and tasks such as martial arts, skateboarding, and gymnastics.  These sports allow them to know exactly what is expected each time they do it and broken down into manageable sections.

To summarize the effects of exercise on the systems of the brain and neurotransmitters involved:

Overloaded Cerebellum contributes to fidgetiness in ADHD kids and a fragmented Prefrontal Cortex. ADHD drugs that elevate Dopamine and Norepinephrine bring this area back in balance. Since exercise increase these levels as well, exercise can thus help regulate an overloaded Cerebellum. With a regulated Cerebellum, there is a positive effect on the Prefrontal Cortex and thus providing the ADHD student the ability to sustain attention and reduce impulsivity in executive functioning tasks.


Some of the barriers to implementing exercise in the classroom includes the financial obstacle of obtaining the exercise equipment. Who will fund the programs, will it be publically funded or will there need to be fundraising. Also, recess activities and specialized programs will need additional staff and training.   Having ADHD without aid may become costly in personal life and career, limiting their successes. The individual may lack additional support once the program is over or they graduate as it may be seen as a novelty and, therefore, discontinue the exercise as a regimen for ADHD.

It must be noted that exercise may not work for everyone dealing with ADHD and some may experience varying effects of its use.  Many reports suggest utilizing both medication and exercise as an aid to ADHD control.

Discussion questions from presentation:1. Do you think ADHD medications like Ritalin, Adderall, and Concerta can be replaced entirely with exercise?
2. Can you think of other barriers?
3. What sorts of additional stresses might exercise cause? What are the cons of an exercise program?
4. Do you think it would be feasible and realistic to implement a physical education program specific to ADHD kids?
5. What are your thoughts on “time-in”? Could other methods be used?
6. Whether you have ADHD or not, are there any physical activities that you do to help you focus? Meditation, walking, working out….?
7. Do you think the benefits of exercise will benefit all students in their levels of focus or only those with ADHD?

Dylan Mitchell & Jennifer Coburn

References: (case study) (case study)

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, Dec 10). Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Data & Statistics. Retrieved from

Gleason, S. & Smith, A. (2014, Sept. 9). Exercise Before School May Reduce ADHD Symptoms in Kids. Retrieved from

Halperin, J. M. & Healey, D. M. (2011). The Influences of Environmental Enrichment, Cognitive Enhancement, and Physical Exercise on Brain Development: Can we alter the developmental trajectory of ADHD? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(3), 621-634. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.07.006

Kalyn, W. (ed.).(n.d.). The Statistics of ADHD: ADD by the Numbers – A Summary of the Research of Russell Barkley, Ph.D. In ADDitude: Strategies and Support for ADHD & LD. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from

Kemp, C. F., Sperlich, B., & Holmberg, H-C. (2014). Exercise Reduces the Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Improves Social Behaviour, Motor Skills, Strength and Neuropsychological Parameters. Acta Paediatrica, 103 (7), 709-714. DOI: 10.1111/apa.12628

Sparking Life. (2015). Dr. John Ratey, Co-Author of the Ground-Breaking ADD/ADHD Book, Driven to Distraction, Presents Evidence in SPARK that Exercise Tempers these Disorders: Regular exercise can raise levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, and improve functioning of brain systems that regulate impulse, memory and attention. Sparking Life: Power your brain through exercise. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from

Verret, C., & Guay, M. C. (2012). A Physical Activity Program Improves Behavior and Cognitive Functions in Children With ADHD: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 16(1), 71–80. doi: 10.1177/1087054710379735

Wigal, S. B., Nemet, D. et al. (2003). Catecholamine Response to Exercise in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Pediatric Research, 53, 756–761. doi:10.1203/01.PDR.0000061750.71168.23

Author: JeCob18

I am a student at UNB, studying Recreation and Sport Studies (Management) and a minor in Business. Outside school I work with the NB Filmmakers Co-Operative, Special Olympics, recruit/manage/play for the Capital Senior Women's Soccer league, and part of UNB's rowing club (though not this year). I'm also a martial artist, gardener, dancing enthusiast, painter, writer, photographer, and a wildlife/nature lover. The list is growing.

One thought on “Exercise as an Aid for ADHD

  1. Great post!

    I wholeheartedly believe that exercise is an effective way to manage ADHD. But as you mentioned there are a myriad of barriers to implementing exercise programs in the classroom. Unfortunately, financial resources for physical activity programs are already undervalued. It is difficult for advocates of these initiatives to communicate the ‘return on investment’ that would come from these programs.

    Moreover, I feel that exercise can benefit all students, not simply those with ADHD. Ultimately, I think that physical activity should become a major aspect of learning. For example, the article Let ‘Em Out! The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play In Kindergarten introduces the Swiss Walder-kindergartens. Rain or shine, these children ages 4-7 spend the entire school day playing outdoors. The program is focused on physical literacy, social interaction, and emotional well-being; as opposed to a strict schedule including math or reading. This is a context that would undoubtedly enable all students to thrive. I encourage you to watch e the documentary “School’s Out: Lessons From a Forest Kindergarten”film to see how this outdoor play positively contributes to development.

    I also think that exercise and wellness courses should be mandatory at all levels of education; from kindergarten to University. It is widely acknowledged that physical activity has countless metal, social, emotional and physical benefits. This could have major positive implications for overcoming ADHD as well as positively impacting well-being at a global level.



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