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 affected by ADHD without many difficulties. Interestingly, exercise appears to be one such intervention.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD is classified in a few different ways. Some classify the condition as an intellectual disorder, while others categorize the symptoms of ADHD as a neurological or developmental disorder. Whatever the umbrella term used to describe the condition and its symptoms, ADHD 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.
Who Does ADHD Affect?
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 the advent of ADHD in a child. Like most disorders, prompt diagnosis and treatment are key to minimizing the harmful effects of ADHD.
ADHD can affect children and adults. Most commonly, children do not receive a diagnosis of ADHD 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 with ADHD 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.
Why Is ADHD Problematic?
For some, the symptoms of ADHD can be extremely mild and may not require intensive therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention; instead, they may be managed through organization tools and personal interventions. For others, however, the effects of ADHD 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 of ADHD can prompt the onset of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, creating an even greater seed of discord in one's life.
How Is ADHD Treated?
ADHD 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.
Some families might also choose to use therapies traditionally used for other conditions, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which 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.
Interventions for ADHD might include IEP and 504 Plans for 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.
For some, the symptoms of ADHD 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 in the best interest of 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 of ADHD.
Exercise And ADHD
Exercise 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 for ADHD, however, might be the key to effectively reducing the hyperactivity associated with the condition. Simply running back and forth for an hour is unlikely to have long-term effects on ADHD symptoms, though it may eat up energy for a brief period. Long-term ADHD relief is more likely to occur through disorder-specific exercises designed to improve neural connectivity, social connections, and body awareness.
Exercise can also be useful for ADHD because it can release "feel-good" chemicals, which are linked to an increase in cognitive function and mood control. 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 ADHD 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.
Exercises For ADHD
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.
Simply getting outside and playing on a playground or in the grass can assist in mitigating the symptoms of ADHD. These activities alone, though, may not provide the stimulation and prolonged brain-body connection that more focused and intensive exercise routines provide.
If possible, work up to a 30–40-minute daily exercise routine. 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 or even an accountability app, which can provide an impetus for movement.
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