Improving Focus And Confidence: Exercise For ADHD

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although pharmaceutical interventions are often one of the common solutions for symptoms of conditions like ADHD, increasing bodies of research are looking for methods of treatment that do not possess as many potential side effects as medications. Methods that are not medications can be much more easily incorporated into the daily lives of children, adults, and families without many difficulties. Interestingly, exercise appears to be one such intervention.

What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder?

A qualified therapist can help you manage your ADHD symptoms

ADHD is classified in a few different ways. Some classify the condition as an intellectual disorder, while others categorize the symptoms as a neurological or developmental disorder. Whatever the umbrella term used to describe the condition and its symptoms, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can be highly impactful to those it affects.

Broad ADHD symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Put into practice, these symptoms can manifest as difficulty concentrating, difficulty sitting still without fidgeting, inability to control verbal or physical outbursts, and experiencing sensory overwhelm. All of these can create an environment that can make learning and engaging with others more difficult and create problems in school and the workplace as children grow into adulthood.

Risk factors

The greatest risk factor involved in ADHD is having a family with a diagnosis of ADHD or a similar disorder. A family history of anxiety has also been linked to diagnosis in a child. Like most disorders, prompt diagnosis and treatment are key to minimizing the effects of this disorder.

ADHD can affect children and adults. Most commonly, children do not receive a diagnosis until they have reached school age, as the symptoms of ADHD may not manifest as problematic until a child is placed in an academic setting where sitting still, focusing, and engaging in a task are required for several hours at a time. During play, children with ADHD are usually able to cope quite well with their disorder and may not require immediate treatment.

Adults might not receive a diagnosis at all but can experience difficulties in relationships and the workplace. Because ADHD can negatively impact your ability to focus, deadlines might go unmet, responsibilities can be forgotten, and procrastination can become a rule of behavior rather than an occasional indulgence. In relationships, people with ADHD can find challenges, as they might forget important dates, misunderstand emotional cues due to distraction, lose or forget important items, and may not be able to comprehend the severity of a problem relayed to them by their partner.

How can ADHD affect everyday life?

Sometimes, the symptoms can be extremely mild and may not require intensive therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention; instead, they may be managed through organization tools and personal interventions. Others, however, may experience effects that can be severe and dramatic enough to require several forms of intervention, including behavioral therapies, medication, lifestyle changes, and supplements.

ADHD's greatest source of trouble can come from the struggle to concentrate, engage, and control impulses. In infancy and young childhood, these issues might not be terribly problematic, but in adulthood, each of these symptoms can have long-lasting consequences, including addiction, debt, job loss, or isolation from peers. Over time, the effects of these manifestations can prompt the onset of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, creating an even greater seed of discord in one's life.

What are the treatment options?

Occupational therapy

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder might be treated through behavioral therapies, interventions, and pharmaceutical drugs. Therapies might include Occupational Therapy (OT), which can help children with sensory disorders (conditions frequently co-morbid to ADHD) develop decreased or increased sensitivity to stimuli. Occupational Therapy can help children with ADHD learn to sit and attend to a task, write effectively, and tune out distractors. 

Online or in-person therapy

Some families might also choose to use therapies traditionally used for other conditions, such as cognitive behavior therapy, to treat ADHD. Psychotherapy can help "rewire" the brain to develop healthier self-esteem and coping mechanisms. If traditional therapy isn’t an option, online therapy can provide a more cost-effective and convenient alternative. Using online therapy with a wide network of licensed professional therapists can be more affordable and allow you to get counseling from the comfort of your home.

One study found that online therapy can even be more effective than in-person options when it comes to treating the symptoms of ADHD in children and adults.

IEP and 504 Plans

Interventions for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder might include IEP and 504 Plans in educational settings. These plans may allow students to receive services (including OT) during school hours, may allow children the opportunity to use fidget toys to help keep focus, or may instruct teachers to provide children with better seating, perhaps away from windows, doors, or areas with a large number of stimuli.


Some people may experience symptoms of ADHD that can disrupt daily life enough that pharmaceutical intervention is required. In these cases, medications might be used to sedate some of the excess energy unique to ADHD, which can help increase focus and relieve impulsivity.

While these aforementioned treatment modalities can be useful in treating and managing symptoms of ADHD, the goal is to create a treatment plan that is most effective for the individual, which might not include pharmaceutical medication. Some people may prefer trying alternative treatments first and pursuing more drastic measures as a last resort. For these families, exercise as a form of therapy might provide some relief from the symptoms.

Physical exercise and ADHD

A qualified therapist can help you manage your ADHD symptoms

While the above modalities typically make up the primary forms of treatment for ADHD, physical activity can be just the thing to supplement traditional methods of care. In addition to improvements in physical health—including enhanced cardiovascular function, increased energy levels, and strengthened muscles—exercise can have significant positive effects on cognitive and emotional health. 

Physical activity can be a healthy addition to anyone's routine, whether that exercise is more strenuous, as in the case of weightlifting or long-distance running, or a calmer engagement, such as yoga or stretching. Even in calmer, gentler forms of exercise, energy is being utilized in a healthy way and can contribute to a calmer, more stable vestibular system and can help ease tension, anxiety, and impulsivity.

Using specific forms of exercise, however, might be the key to effectively reducing the hyperactivity associated with the condition. Long-term relief is more likely to occur through disorder-specific exercises designed to improve neural connectivity, social connections, and body awareness.

Exercise plays an important role in brain health. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which can help people who have trouble focusing or remembering important information. Exercise can also be useful when it comes to managing ADHD because it can release "feel-good" chemicals, which are linked to an increase in cognitive function and mood control. For example, there is evidence of a strong connection between physical activity and increased dopamine levels, which are typically lower in people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Both cognition and mood control may be required to maintain focus, harmony, and self-control, all of which can be considered antonyms to the very foundation of an ADHD diagnosis.

One of the most significant deficits in individuals with attention disorders may be executive function. Executive function is a term used to describe the ability to accurately and effectively make decisions according to a logical, structured plan. People who are unable to use executive functioning skills may experience erratic behavior, racing thoughts, and difficulty accomplishing tasks, as the drive to complete things in a sound, logical way may be severely diminished. Fortunately, researchers are finding that exercise significantly boosts the brain's executive functioning skills, which can be a powerful intervention method for children and adults with ADHD. Research suggests that improvements to executive function are partially due to exercise’s ability to foster brain plasticity.

The best physical movements for ADHD

Exercise studies suggest that various types of physical activity can have a positive effect on ADHD symptoms. Research shows that even acute exercise—meaning a single session of physical activity—can have a range of mental health benefits for individuals with ADHD. There is evidence that acute exercise improves mood, memory, and learning

Simply getting outside and playing on a playground or in the grass can assist in mitigating the symptoms of ADHD. In children, research shows that the positive effects of exercise can include improvement in executive functions and attention span. These activities alone, though, may not provide the stimulation and prolonged brain-body connection that more focused and intensive exercise routines provide. 

The best exercise for ADHD will typically depend on an individual’s abilities, interests, and existing health concerns. According to an article published by the Child Mind Institute, organized sports may not be appropriate for some children with ADHD because of difficulty taking direction

If possible, work up to a 30–40-minute daily exercise routine. Having an exercise regimen that you can implement regularly ensures you’re experiencing the beneficial effects of physical activity consistently. For children, exercise can be more engaging and entertaining by giving exercises animal names or engaging in the exercises along with your children. For adults, exercise might be best engaged (at least initially) with an accountability partner, through an accountability app, or by participating in team sports, all of which can encourage movement.

Aerobic exercise

Although all physical activity is likely to aid in some way, there are specific exercises and forms of exercise that can have demonstrably healthy effects on ADHD symptoms. Biking and swimming can both be useful forms of exercise. Simply biking or swimming for 30 minutes per day, 4-5 days per week, can drastically reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

Research backs the notion that aerobic workouts can be a key component of the “exercise prescription” for ADHD. For example, in one study, researchers found that college students with ADHD who engaged in high-intensity interval training experienced significant improvements in their symptoms. Because aerobic activities can improve cardiovascular function and boost the immune system, they can alleviate some of the physical challenges associated with ADHD. Aerobic exercise can play a crucial role in helping individuals sleep well, maintain a healthy weight, and improve gastrointestinal function. 

Body movement practices

Martial arts can also help children with ADHD, as the physical components work alongside mental components to improve mental acuity and physical discipline. Dance, gymnastics, and yoga are also useful forms of exercise, as these involve complicated movements that require both physical and mental engagement to complete. These types of physical activity are generally more low-impact than exercises like resistance training, which may make your muscles feel tired more quickly.


Although there are still emerging studies surrounding the notion of exercise as a treatment option for ADHD, the area shows immense promise for children and adults with ADHD. With a daily routine of 30-40 minutes of exercise providing a powerful stimulant to the human brain without the potential side effects of synthetic chemical interventions and the price tag of intensive therapy, exercise is a solution that therapists, families, and individuals should not pass by. That being said, there are more cost-effective therapy methods, such as through online counseling platforms like BetterHelp.
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