The Power of Exercise in Alleviating Symptoms of ADHD in Adolescents

I work mainly with adolescents. A fairly common problem or challenge that my clients have to manage is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  The way this disorder manifests itself is that the adolescent has the inability to concentrate, as well as difficulty following directions, sticking to tasks and accomplishing household chores and schoolwork.  The exact causes of ADHD are unknown, though heredity, chemical imbalances, and traumatic head injury may contribute to the condition.  It is a behavioral condition that has no physical symptoms, though a doctor may take x-rays or a blood test to rule out any underlying physical conditions.  Other psychological conditions, such as anxiety and depression can cause similar symptoms, so it’s important to take a thorough medical and personal history to verify the diagnosis.

Treatments for ADHD include prescription medications and various types of psychosocial interventions, including psychotherapy and behavioral modifications.  If left untreated, children with ADHD are a greater risk for car accidents and drug and alcohol use.  They are also more likely to have learning disabilities.

Because ADHD isn’t fully understood, it can’t be cured or prevented.  Though behavioral interventions and drugs are helpful, exercise has an extremely powerful effect on helping an adolescent manage this disorder.   Recent research suggests that exercise can be very effective in improving ADHD symptoms, in part by raising level of dopamine and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), two neurotransmitters responsible for growth and learning. In one 2011 study, a 28 day program of daily treadmill running, 30 minutes a day, raised levels of dopamine and BDNF in hyperactive rats and improved their ability to find their way around a complex maze.

In humans, exercise can temporarily raise levels of dopamine and the adrenal hormone norepinephrine, which essentially mimics the effects of ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall.  So by heightening the senses, improving mood and focus, and relieving tension, exercise creates an ideal environment for a child to learn.  At the same time, exercise improves neurogenesis, the building of new cells, which directly accelerates learning in itself.

On a final note, aerobic activity and structured activity involving direct engagement with other kids is absolutely crucial.  Fun should be a leading determiner in choosing an activity.  The more chances kids with ADHD have to feel good about themselves while exercising, the better and more effective it is in helping alleviate their symptoms.

I have ten years of experience in the fitness industry as a former personal trainer and a strength and conditioning coach and currently run a fitness boot camp at the National Cathedral, along with having a psychotherapy practice.  Exercise also plays a huge role in my daily life. Because of my experience and my belief in the power of exercise, I make sure to emphasize the powerful effects of exercise to my adolescent clients that see me for psychotherapy.  We create a plan together and then  I hold them accountable for being active during the day and make sure to monitor their activity level, as I strongly feel that is a huge part of the healing process.  With regular, intense movement that is also fun, exercise is strong enough to alleviate symptoms, whether it be depression, anxiety, or ADHD.  Having a therapist that monitors personal care such as hydration, diet, sleep, and exercise is extremely important in helping adolescents see positive change.  Though it is only a piece of the puzzle, it is a very important one, and one that is often overlooked.

Speak Your Mind


Ryan Long, MSW, LICSW


verified by Psychology Today

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