ADHD & Exercise

At Diverse Diagnostics, we aim to promote a healthy lifestyle. One of the best medical interventions, which is often underrated, is physical activity. As a medical intervention, physical activity has one of the best risk:benefit ratio people can imagine.

Many studies have shown the importance of regular exercise, with 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise at the recommended minimum dose. People who regularly exercise have about a 30% reduction in overall mortality rates. Moreover, physical activity’s impact on mental health has been a trending topic over the last decade. Exercising regularly can reduce anxiety symptoms and depression, among other mental health issues.

Does exercise has an impact on children and adolescent’s living with ADHD? 8-10% of children worldwide are diagnosed with ADHD, and exercise is a potential management strategy. There is much evidence of exercise’s positive impact on cognitive function, enhancing plasticity and better focus/attention. So, why not think of exercise as part of ADHD treatment?

A systematic review published in Elsevier Journal in 2017 summarises 30 different studies made with children diagnosed with ADHD and the positive impact exercise had on the neurocognitive and behavioural symptoms of ADHD.  

Regarding short-term effects, different studies have shown that:

  • a single 30-min of high-intensity treadmill exercise improved post-exercise response time and normalization of impulsivity and vigilance measures (go/no-go task).
  • a single 20-min of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise improves response accuracy and stimulus-related processing when performing an attentional-control task after exercise.

Regarding long-term effects, studies have shown that:

  • 26 min of continuous moderate-to-vigorous daily exercise (before school) over 8 weeks reduces the severity of ADHD symptoms, with response inhibition effects being the most consistent.
  • a 12-week training programme (included ball handling, balance, and manual dexterity) demonstrated a positive effect on the executive functions

As mentioned before, physical activity is also considered a medical intervention, and it has one of the best risk:benefit ratio; from all these 30 studies included in the systematic review, no harm arising from exercise was reported. What does this mean exactly? It means regular physical activity is a well-tolerated intervention among children and adolescents.

It is important to highlight those young individuals with ADHD are at higher risk of becoming sedentary, which can lead to obesity. Hence, physical activity has not only effects on their mental health and behavioural symptoms but also on reducing the risk of overweight/obesity.

Now, getting a bit more into scientific details… How does physical activity exactly improves ADHD symptoms? How is it explained? Regular physical activity increases norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin levels in the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus, and striatum.

Lots of scientific names, right? You just need to understand that these neurotransmitters play an important role in cognitive functioning and executive functions, and impulse control; medications for ADHD, especially stimulants, increase these neurotransmitters too. This is how both medication and exercise alleviate ADHD symptoms.

To conclude, we hope that with this evidence, you will start promoting physical activity on a daily basis for your children and adolescents, but, remember, adults are the best example to follow.

Particularly, moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise has shown significant improvement in ADHD symptoms and can be a tremendous non-pharmacologic intervention for their entire life.


1            Ng QX, Ho CYX, Chan HW, et al. Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complement Ther Med 2017;34:123–8. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2017.08.018