Prescription for ADHD and the Fountain of Youth: Get Moving

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

Laughter may be the best medicine, but a good workout is definitely in second place. Exercise improves mood, decreases anxiety and increases concentration. Breathing hard and sweating for an hour or so can do more for your productivity than any other form of therapy. Time spent exercising is time well spent.

When I meet with someone recently diagnosed with ADHD, the conversation eventually turns to treatment options. The first three topics I address with each patient are always the same: 1) sleep, 2) diet, and 3) exercise. The first two will be the topics of my next blog entries.

Starting with the assumption that the person with whom I am speaking is capable of physical activity, I first ask what they are already doing to stay fit. Many people are already involved in some routine or program, and some are enthusiastic athletes. About half, however, are either so busy that they can’t seem to find the time to fit in that workout, or their lives are so overwhelming that even thinking about exercise just adds to their stress. I compliment and encourage those for whom fitness is a part of life, and I take some time to discuss the psychiatric benefits of exercise for those who do not.

With all we need to keep track of, be on time for, schedule, organize, file, list, clean, pay and check off, slipping into a pair of comfortable shoes to go for a jog might seem like a waste of valuable time. Schlepping to the gym, changing clothes, finding a machine on which to robotically move for 30 minutes, stretching, showering, changing again and then getting on to the next thing is an anxiety producing process for those of us who are organizationally challenged.

To address the first concern, I try to assure every patient that exercise is not a waste of time. The increased energy and productivity alone make it all worthwhile. And to those who are overwhelmed by the steps required to begin and finish their workouts, I say, “keep it simple.” Do whatever is most convenient. Go wherever is closest. Jog in place, do push ups, sit ups, crunches and pull-ups. Get a yoga mat, a DVD, or follow along with a class on YouTube. All you need is gravity, a little imagination, and willingness to sweat.

The benefits are, to many of my patients, intuitive. I usually list them anyway. The physical momentum developed during exercise translates into mental momentum. The ability to initiate, persist and complete builds along with muscles and cardiovascular strength. Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers generated during vigorous physical activity, enhance dopamine function in our brains, improving focus and providing sense of well being. Feeling good becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a positive contagion spreading to everyone and everything around you.

If you don’t self-medicate with endorphins already, give it a try. As with all potentially addictive activities, however, please enjoy in moderation.