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  • Writer's pictureRyan Sheridan, NP

Boosting Focus and Mood: How Exercise Can Help with ADHD Management

Updated: May 5, 2023



 

Key Takeaways:

  1. Exercise is a fundamental pillar of wellness for body and mind.

  2. Incorporating exercise into a treatment plan can improve focus and boost mood, including for those with ADHD.

  3. Collaborating with an integrative and holistic provider is a great way to optimize whole health including mental health.

 

As an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner, I am constantly exploring ways to support my patients in managing their ADHD symptoms. While medication and therapy can be effective for ADHD, I have found that incorporating regular exercise into an ADHD management plan can make a significant impact on focus and mood. My doctoral research is focused on using exercise as a prescriptive intervention.

In other words, I believe exercise can be used like a medication!

You can read more about the relationship between exercise and mental health in another blog post. The one thing I hope to impress upon you with this post is that ADHD treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for you, may not work for someone else.


My goal is always to help find solutions that work for the long-term. I outline a story about a patient below to help illustrate how powerful and transformative exercise can be for ADHD.

The Impact of Exercise on ADHD Management

Exercise has long been known to benefit physical health, but its impact on mental health is often overlooked. Studies have shown that exercise can improve cognitive function, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase overall wellbeing. For those with ADHD, these benefits can be especially valuable.

Let’s discuss a patient, we’ll call her Samantha. Samantha was a 35-year-old woman with a long-standing history of ADHD. Despite trying multiple medications and therapies, she continued to struggle with concentration and mood swings. As an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner, I suggested that she incorporate regular exercise into her ADHD management plan.

Samantha was skeptical at first, as she had never been much of an exercise enthusiast. But after some discussion, we decided to start with incorporating a brisk walk twice a week. At first, she found it challenging to stay committed, but over time, she began to notice a difference. She felt calmer and more centered after her walks, and she found that she was able to sustain attention for longer periods of time during the day.

Encouraged by these results, Samantha gradually increased her exercise routine. She started going to the gym three times a week for a mix of cardio and strength training. She also began to take regular walks during her lunch breaks. (Side note: this is something I highly recommend! Taking breaks, especially in the form of walks, is a one-two punch giving us a bit of physical activity but also helping us break up our days by giving our brains a break from work)

As she incorporated more exercise into her routine, Samantha noticed that her mood began to improve as well. She felt less anxious and stressed, and she had more energy throughout the day. Through further optimization of her sleep hygiene and routine, she also began to sleep better at night, which further improved her mood and ability to focus.

Over time, Samantha began to feel like a different person. She was more focused, more productive, and more confident in her abilities. She also felt happier and more fulfilled in her personal life.

Looking back, Samantha realized that exercise had been one of the missing pieces in her ADHD treatment plan. While medication for ADHD (and therapy) had helped to some degree, it was the consistent exercise routine that had made the biggest impact on her focus and mood. She was grateful to have found a sustainable approach to managing her ADHD, and she was excited to continue exploring new ways to incorporate exercise into her life.


Now, Samantha’s case may be a perfect goldilocks scenario, but this is truly a common outcome for patients I see. We also worked on balancing her nutrition so ensure we left no stone unturned.

Engaging in physical activity – exercise – is a fundamental pillar of wellness for body and mind alike. There is no avoiding it, no way around it.

Improving Focus with Exercise

As we talked about with Samantha, one of the most notable ways exercise can help with ADHD management is by improving focus. Physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which in turn promotes the growth of new neural connections. This can enhance cognitive function and improve the ability to sustain attention. Additionally, exercise has been shown to increase the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in attention and focus (more on dopamine and ADHD here).

Boosting Mood with Exercise

But, like with Samantha, exercise doesn't just benefit focus - it can also have a positive impact on mood. Individuals with ADHD are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety, and exercise has been shown to be an effective way to manage these symptoms. Regular exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters. Exercise also helps to reduce stress and improve sleep quality, both of which can improve overall mood.

Incorporating Exercise into an ADHD Management Plan

When incorporating exercise into an ADHD management plan, it's important to find an activity that is enjoyable and sustainable. This can help to increase motivation and adherence. Some individuals may prefer team sports, while others may prefer solo activities like running (or CrossFit like me). It's also important to start slowly and gradually increase intensity and duration to avoid injury or burnout.


I recommend starting with something to which we can firmly commit – a day or two a week – and adding from there. Even if it is 5 minutes a day one day a week, we are laying the foundation for sustainable progress.

Another consideration is the timing of exercise. Some individuals with ADHD may find that exercise before a task requiring focus can be beneficial, as it can increase alertness and mental readiness. Think of replacing a cup of coffee with exercise. Others may prefer to exercise after completing a task as a way to release tension and improve mood. Some folks find it beneficial to exercise in the morning at the same time. The key is finding what works for you and sticking with it.

The Importance of Collaboration with Healthcare Providers

Incorporating exercise into an ADHD management plan is may not be a replacement for medication or therapy, but rather a complementary approach. It's never a bad idea to discuss any new exercise regimen with a healthcare provider, especially if there are any existing health concerns or injuries. I always recommend working with an integrative provider (duh, like me haha). With integrative psychiatry our focus is holistic, meaning you’re treated as a whole person. Even for ADHD, a holistic approach can make a huge difference.

Conclusion

In conclusion, exercise can be a powerful tool in managing ADHD symptoms. By improving focus and mood, it can help to enhance overall wellbeing and quality of life. As an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner, I encourage my patients to explore exercise as part of their ADHD management plan and to find an activity that they enjoy and can stick to. With consistent effort, exercise can make a significant difference in managing ADHD symptoms and improving overall health. You, too, can become a success story like Samantha. I believe in you!

If you have any additional questions about ADHD or integrative psychiatry in general, shoot me an email or reach out through my website. If you're looking for a provider and you're in the Washington, DC area, I'd love to help you on your treatment journey!


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