Take Control; The Effects of Excercise on ADD/ADHD
Don K Potochny
A vast majority of psychotherapists take an all-or-nothing position with respect to their preferred treatments for ADHD. Usually, the all portion of the equation is medication and nothing else. Even more disconcerting is the notion in some medical professional circles that one specific treatment is the only strategy for mitigating ADHD symptoms. The one-size-fits-all treatment strategy doesn’t work for the rest of our medical conditions. Why should ADHD be any different?
A varied treatment strategy should be implemented for anyone who has been diagnosed with ADHD. The treatment strategy should take into account the type of ADHD that is present, as well as the strength of the symptoms. A treatment strategy also needs to factor in what someone with ADHD wants out of a remedial program. Medical professionals who diagnose ADHD often forget the most important question to ask is: “What do you want to get out of this process?”
There are a plethora of options to incorporate into an ADHD treatment strategy. Medication is the most frequently dispensed remedy, while diet and nutritional changes, along with coaching, are some other options that are popular methods prescribed by ADHD therapists. But there is one method of ADHD interdiction that has been overlooked in the past and, only recently, has become scrutinized in ADHD research studies. It is a treatment that is as facile as putting on some tennis shoes and walking down to the local grocery store. It’s called exercise.
Dr. Michael S. Wendt, from State University of New York at Buffalo, designed and supervised a study in 2001 that demonstrated the positive benefits of exercise on ADHD children (1). The children were between the ages of 5-12 and were subjected to forty minutes of exercise for five days per week. Children involved in the study showed significant improvement in behavior over the six week duration of the study. Personal conduct changes were especially conspicuous during the first four weeks of the study (2).
Current research reveals that neuro-chemical changes occur in the body when respiration rates exceed 50% of the body’s total capacity for oxygen consumption. As a result, exercising above the 50% threshold promotes changes in brain chemistry (3). Dr. Wendt believes the neuro-chemical changes have a direct impact on the behavior of ADHD children because the condition is caused by a breakdown of neurological operations within the brain.
Aerobic exercises seem to increase the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The three neurotransmitters augment emotional stability, concentration, acuity, and tranquility. A brain deficient in these neurotransmitters can cause depression, petulance, anxiety, rapid mood swings, and attention problems. Exercise also releases endorphins, the opiate classified messengers of our emotional system that regulate mood, pleasure, and pain (4).
Research further indicates that American children have become less active over the past ten years. The sedentary lifestyle that many children lead prevents them from exceeding the critical 50% oxygen consumption threshold. While the science of an exercise-ADHD correlation is still in its infancy, it isn’t a surprise that over the last ten years the identification rate of ADHD in children has dramatically increased.
About four million Americans take stimulant medications for ADHD, including nearly 10% of ten year old boys (5). Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of two wildly popular books about ADHD, believes kids might not need medication at all if they exercised strenuously for three to five times a week. The side effect of a good exercise program is a chemically enriched brain environment that promotes neurotransmitter growth. The long term side effects of a strict medication regimen appear to be far more invasive.
Dr. Ratey is so intrigued about the exercise treatment option that he’s writing a book on how exercise can reduce the symptoms of ADHD. While he will focus on the exercise benefits for children, adults can also benefit from the addition of a structured exercise program. The question is what type of exercise program works best?
The Dore program, which began in England, has five centers in the United States. The program is based on the theory that people with ADHD have under-developed cerebellums. Clients are given customized exercises designed to stimulate the cerebellum and create pathways that allow information to be transmitted more efficiently in the brain. The exercises are based on repetitive motion, like tossing a bean bag, walking up and down stairs with eyes closed, and trying to negotiate the length of a balance beam. The company reports that more than ninety percent of their clients say the Dore program significantly decreased their ADHD symptoms (6).
A structured exercise program isn’t the only way to circulate the elusive neurotransmitters. Just participating in a three to five day moderate-to- intense aerobic workout of your choice should do the trick. I recommend engaging in any exercise program with the enlistment of at least one other person. A buddy system encourages participation by all of the people within the group. Whether you do it alone or with others, the following are a few aerobic based activities that can fit into almost anyone’s hectic schedule:
-Bicycling at fifteen miles per hour
-Organized sports like basketball
I didn’t find out about my ADHD until I was well into adulthood. About five years before my ADHD discovery, I began a consistent exercise program that I followed every week. The workouts gave me an outlet to release some of my pent up hyperactivity. Moreover, I was amazed at the clarity of my thought process and improved concentration levels. Sometimes we don’t need exhaustive research studies to validate how we feel. Exercise is one common sense approach to reigning in the more prominent symptoms of ADHD.
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