• Karen Sribney

Exercise helps my ADHD?!

Updated: Mar 9, 2019

I was invited to go to a meeting at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education to hear about some exciting new research they are doing in some Calgary schools.

Following the lead of Dr. John J. Ratey, MD and his book ‘Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,’ exercise sessions are being set up in the gyms and hallways of some schools before children enter the classroom in the mornings. Read below to hear why.

It was long believed that we had narrow windows in our development in which our brain was able to grow and produce new neural pathways, and once those windows were closed, we were stuck with what we had. More and more research is pointing to the ‘neuroplasticity’ of our brains. In other words, the human brain can change as a result of one's experience; the brain is 'plastic' and 'malleable.' Ratey writes, “In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through ‘leaves’ on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

The symptoms of ADHD stem from a malfunction of the brain’s attention system. This system involves a connection of neurons dispersed throughout the brain, that together control arousal, motivation, reward, executive function, and movement. The circuits in this attention system are jointly regulated by the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. These are the chemicals targeted by the medications we, or our children, take to control the symptoms of ADHD.

The attention system ties in with movement (and thus exercise) at the level of the cerebellum: this area controls both physical movement and also coordinates the flow of information in our brains (ensuring it moves seamlessly by managing and updating). The cerebellum takes up just 10 percent of the brain’s volume, but it contains half of our neurons, and in people with ADHD, it has been shown that parts of the cerebellum are smaller in volume and do not function properly, thus causing disjointed attention.

The research is showing, then, that movement and attention share overlapping pathways in the brain.

Knowing all this ‘brain stuff,’ how does exercise benefit people with ADHD and why do it first thing in the morning? The broad explanation is that exercise tempers ADHD by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine and it does so immediately. Ratey describes that “an overactive cerebellum also contributes to fidgetiness in ADHD kids, and recent studies have shown that ADHD drugs that elevate dopamine and norepinephrine bring this area back in balance. Exercise also increases norepinephrine. And the more complex the exercise the better.” Therefore, martial arts, ballet, figure skating, gymnastics, rock climbing, mountain biking, whitewater paddling, and even skateboarding all require complex movement in the midst of heavy exertion. This combination of challenging the brain and the body has been found to have a greater positive impact than aerobic exercise alone.

Researchers have yet to quantify how long the spike in dopamine and norepinephrine last after exercise, but evidence to date suggests an hour or maybe ninety minutes of calm and clarity. As a teacher, imagine a classroom full of calm children first thing in the morning?! And just as this is about to wear off, it’s recess!! Therefore, Dr. Ratey suggests that we exercise first thing in the morning and then, if we are taking medication, take it about one hour later when the immediate focusing effects of exercise begin to wear off. As a parent, I realize that this is not always a realistic option unless we can incorporate this exercise as a way to get to school. But, wouldn’t it be great to see our children benefit from exercise AFTER school when the effects of their medication is wearing off or they are just tired after a full day of trying to focus at school?

If you would like further information about strategies to help with your attention and focus, please contact me at 403.922.4122 or through the contact link above.

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