Exercise and ADHD: How Physical Activity Boosts the Brain and Cognitive Performance

Physical activity have a positive effect on cognitive performance and executive function such as learning, problem solving and attention span.

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Apr 4, 2019

Tiimo member

April 4, 2019
Charlotte Egeskov
Content Manager & Science Researcher

Evidence supports the beneficial effects physical activity have on cognitive performance and brain processing. Making these findings interesting to look into in relation to the challenges of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Top things to know

  • ADHD affects children and teens and can continue into adulthood. It is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder in children.
  • Individuals with ADHD show diminished blood flow to the prefrontal regions of the brain.
  • Common cognitive challenges that people with ADHD may experience include amongst other difficulties with memory, time management, organizing and focusing.
  • ADHD can be improved with exercise, diet and lifestyle changes.

People with ADHD face unique challenges due to the symptoms of ADHD, which often begins in childhood and can persist into adulthood. ADHD can cause impairments in social, academic and employment functions.

The symptoms of ADHD are in direct conflict with the demands of the classroom and many academic fields, where student learning are centred around a learning process with an expectancy of being still, stay seated, pay attention, concentrate, memorize and follow directions. Making the classroom environment especially challenging for people with ADHD to navigate within. Additionally, the behavioral symptoms of ADHD may impair the person's ability to succeed in school and other environments alike (1).

Unique brain structure

Several studies show that the ADHD brain shows structural abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, which affects selective and divided attention, attention shifting, planning, executive control, and working memory.

Another finding in the ADHD brain showed that the prefrontal region is structured differently compared to individuals without ADHD (2). The prefrontal region affects complex and effortful cognitive processing and is thought to modulate reward-based decision making. Additionally, these areas of the brain have also been identified as having significantly diminished blood flow in individuals with ADHD (1).

The executive function is thought to be highly relevant for daily life activities, maintaining appropriate behavior as well as academic and social functions (3). Executive function is responsible for these 5 skills:

  • Working memory and paying attention
  • Organizing and planning
  • Initiating tasks and staying focused on them
  • Regulating emotions and inhibitions
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you're doing)

Research throughout time has consistently documented that ADHD is characterized by challenges in executive function, where ADHD children perform worse at executive function task than their control group.

While executive function challenges are not the only cognitive and behavioral problems in ADHD children, they contribute significantly to the symptoms. As an example, in the classroom, executive function controls the ability to process incoming information, while listening to the teacher, to identify relevant information, to inhibit irrelevant thoughts, to hold relevant information in mind while linking it to other relevant information, and to say focused on the task at hand.

Clearly, difficulties with executive functions, due to certain brain structures, could impact a child ability to reach his or hers full potential. Research have also found that a large contrast to the academic achievements of children with ADHD relative to control children.

Due to the likely impact of academic performance on a child's ability to reach his or her potential, understanding ways to improve the cognitive and executive functions abilities of ADHD children is crucially important (1).

The impact of exercise on the ADHD brain

Studies have shown that physical activity positively impacts the neurobiological factors of ADHD, like increasing blood flow to the brain. Additionally, there is evidence that physical activity results in changes in brain structure, that scientists expect could positively influence cognitive abilities.

Research with older adults shows that subjects who are more physically active show positive benefits in their brain structure, as well as greater brain activity in brain regions associated with behavioral and attentional control processes. A study with fourth-class students' showed that physical activity for 10-minutes throughout the school day effectively increased the students on-task behavior (4).

There is evidence, though limited in number and not all with a control group, that physical activity benefits cognitive function in general and in particular executive function. Studies with subjects of all ages significant positive effects of physical activity on cognition. Thus making exercise a plausible positive impact for individuals with ADHD in managing or improving their symptoms.

The effect of exercise on behavioral symptoms, hyperactivity, impulse control, and medication dosage

Several studies from the 1980s support the positive effect physical activity can have on behavioral problems. A study with 12 boys, all with behavioral disorders tested the effect of a 6-week jogging program; no jogging or a 5-minute warm-up jog followed by either 5 or 10 min of jogging 3 times per week. Throughout the school day, 5 types of negative behavior (hitting/bothering others, name calling/throwing things, yelling/talking out of turn, moving or sitting inappropriately, refusing to cooperate or participate) was recorded. Results show a reduction of 50% in disruptive behaviors on jogging days compared to non-jogging days and an increase in attention span and impulse control with those who ran before class (4).

Another study found that children with ADHD participating in a regular exercise program for 6 weeks showed significant improvements in behavior compared to the control group of children with ADHD that received no exercise (1).

Another study looked into the effects of a 12-week running could have on hyperactivity, impulse control, and medication dosage.

The results showed that running decreased hyperactivity and impulsivity, but most interesting, those who ran were able to decrease their dose of medication.
Though, when the children stopped running their behaviors returned to the first assessed baseline levels (5).

Physical activity as treatment therapy

The evidence, although limited, show that exercise and overall physical activity can have a positive impact on behavioral symptoms and cognitive performance, and that physical activity could be used as an alternative therapy treatment. Furthermore, exercise might be an effective supplement to medication in order to reduce impulsive outbursts and unwanted or negative behavior patterns that interfere with learning and academic progress.

Individuals who do not respond to medication, or those who seek alternative forms for treatment due to unwanted or harmful side-effects, may benefit from the use of physical activity as treatment instead.

  1. Gapin, J. I., Labban, J. D., & Etnier, J. L. (2011). The effects of physical activity on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms: The evidence. Preventive Medicine, 52, S70-S74.
  2. Bush et al., 2005 G. Bush, E.M. Valera, L.J. Seidman Functional neuroimaging of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a review and suggested future directions. Biol. Psychiatry, 57 (2005), pp. 1273–1284.
  3. The Understood Team (n.d.). 3 Areas of Executive Function. Retrived from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/3-areas-of-executive-function.
  4. M.T. Mahar, S.K. Murphy, D.A. Rowe, J. Golden, A.T. Shields, T.D.Raedeke (2006). Effects of a classroom-based program on physical activity and on-task behavior. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 38 (2006), pp. 2086–2094.
  5. Shipman, W. (1997). Emotional and behavioral effects of long-distance running childrenon children. Running As Therapy: An Integrated Approach. New York, NY: Jason Aronson, 125-37.

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