Becoming an Active Adult with ADHD
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Odell has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
One of the best things to do to treat ADHD is to be active — very active. In fact, researchers have found that vigorous exercise can reduce the symptoms of ADHD. John Ratey, co-author of Driven to Distraction, has championed the use of exercise as a method for improving attention and learning. His recent book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain describes a series of studies that demonstrates the ways exercise can improve the capacity for learning and memory and reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
Active adults with ADHD might not even notice how physical activity can help them focus and sustain attention, that is, until they are required to sit still and concentrate for an extended period and realize how difficult it is. This is exactly what happens to children with ADHD who are glued to their classroom chairs for seven hours per day. If you are fortunate enough to have a job in which being physically active is an integral component, you might find that your ADHD symptoms are reduced during your work and and also during the next few hours afterwards.
For adults with ADHD who do not exercise, making the commitment to a sustained program of regular physical activity can be life changing. Not only will it improve your physical health and fitness, but it will also help you to improve your attention span and assist you in handling day-to-day stress. Exercise is not magic; it works by increasing the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which directly impacts the capacity to concentrate and to manage stress. John Ratey describes brain-derived neurotrophic factor as a protein produced inside nerve cells that serves as “a Miracle-Gro for the brain, fertilizing brain cells to keep them functioning and growing.” It is this new brain-cell growth that helps individuals with ADHD with their tension- and stress-related difficulties.
So if you’re ready to reduce your stress and improve your focus and attention, here are a few suggestions:
1. Make the commitment to exercise on a daily basis. Set aside a minimum of 45 minutes a day to engage in some form of vigorous exercise. This could range from power walking to running, cycling, weight lifting, dancing, or any other sport or activity in which you will increase your heart-rate and work up a sweat. Do not be discouraged if you miss a day, but do try to keep up with it on a regular basis.
2. Choose exercises that involve many parts of your body. Complex physical movement has been demonstrated to improve focus and attention. Sports that are utilize complex body movement include karate and other martial arts, tennis, and swimming.
3. Make exercise into a social activity. Find a partner or a group to exercise with on a regular basis. Going for a bike ride, playing a tennis match, or going to the gym with a friend can keep you regularly active. Talking with others also tends to take your mind off the monotony of exercise.
4. Make your exercise interesting. The nature of ADHD is that many things can become boring and may not sustain your attention. Make exercise more stimulating by listening to music or an audiobook or reading or watching television while using a stationary bike or treadmill. You might also choose to engage in a form of exercise that requires your full attention due to its riskiness, such as mountain bike riding, cross-country skiing, or other extreme sports.
Learn more about Dr. Odell:
Dr. Odell is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children in which he has developed concepts such as “play diets” and “engamement” to help parents and teachers understand the impact of digital technologies on children. He is the author of Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and the author of LearningWorks for Kids: Playing Smarter in a Digital World.