As a personal trainer, I work with clients with various goals. I’ve learned that people often exercise for much more than physical body changes. Even when they come to me to lose fat or build muscle, underneath that, they talk about how they want to improve their productivity or sleep better.
Among these, one of the most common desires is to focus more. Especially for people who have ADHD their, well, attention-deficit, pervades every area of their life, and they think exercise can help them improve their attention and focus.
While this is NOT a substitute for medication, and there are other non-pharmaceutical interventions that can also support ADHD, exercise is one of the most powerful and low-risk methods to manage ADHD symptoms: exercise.
There are countless long-term benefits of exercise that support those with ADHD. However, today I want to share three strategies to use exercise to support your ADHD symptoms today. I won’t talk about other methods to manage ADHD symptoms.
This is not meant to replace those or replace medication. It’s so you have another arrow in the quiver for managing ADHD.
Using these strategies, within a few hours (or even minutes), you can improve your attention so you can get more work done, be more creative, and succeed at whatever important tasks you have.
How Exercise Improves Focus and Attention
First let’s understand the mechanism for why this works.
When we exercise, we create a hormonal cocktail that’s ideal for peak performance. Exercise turns on a cascade of responses which we call the “fight-or-flight” response.
Evolutionarily, this is when our ancestors needed to be able to focus the most, because they were either hunting, or being hunted, both of which their life depended on.
In this hormonal cocktail, we increase cortisol and dopamine. Both of these hormones improve our focus and attention.
And the good news is this effect lasts for hours even after we finish working out. This is true for all types of exercise. Whether you prefer running, spriting, or resistance training, we’re going to get this response.
Yes, it varies, but for our purposes you don’t have to totally change your exercise routine to get this response.
We can take advantage of this hormone response in several ways to manage ADHD symptoms.
1) Plan Times You Need to Focus In The Hours After Working Out
If you have ADHD, you probably don’t need to offset your symptoms all the time. From a practical standpoint, you just need to offset symptoms when you need to focus the most.
Because the dopamine and cortisol increases last for several hours after exercise, you can take advantage of this by planning the tasks where you need the most focus.
For example, if you exercise first thing in the morning, try to set up your day so that you do your most attention-intensive tasks first. During this window, you’ll have the dopamine and cortisol from your exercise supporting you.
Or if you prefer to exercise at lunch time, save your most attention-intensive tasks for right when you get back, and start the day with other tasks.
Regardless of the hour you train (although for everybody I advise wrapping up intense exercise by the early evening), ideally you can move your work tasks or creative tasks around it.
2) Take Exercise Breaks When You’re Overwhelmed Or Feeling Unfocused
In a similar vein, another strategy is to use short bursts of movement and exercise to help you focus. Perhaps you don’t have the freedom to choose when you do what tasks.
If this is the case, before working on tasks where you need the most attention, or when you find your attention slipping, leave your workspace and get 5-10 minutes of exercise in. You don’t have to get sweaty and gross.
As little as one set of any exercise: jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, or a brisk walk, will elevate the sympathetic nervous system, which will heighten alertness and attention.
Even if you followed the first strategy, you can still do this throughout your day.
3) Use Exercise to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
Finally, it’s clear that one of the best ways to improve your attention and focus is to improve your sleep and your sleep habits.
This is true whether you have ADHD or not. But if you have ADHD, you’ll struggle even more if you have trouble sleeping.
And ADHD medication, because it’s a stimulant, often prevents people from getting truly high quality sleep.
There’s a lot to say about improving sleep, but one underrated strategy is the role exercise plays in sleep.
Our circadian rhythm is regulated by these same hormones we’ve been talking about. In the morning, ideally we have a high sympathetic nervous system response (cortisol release), and in the evening, ideally we have a high parasympathetic nervous system response (melatonin release).
By increasing our sympathetic nervous system activation in the morning, we reset this circadian rhythm, because our body assumes that it’s daytime. Then, as the day winds down into the evening, our body will naturally produce more melatonin, which helps us get deep, quality sleep.
If you exercise in the morning, then you already have this covered. If you don’t exercise in the morning, then aim to get 5-15 minutes of exercise first thing in the morning. Again, it could be a few body weight exercises, or a little bit of cardio, or whatever works for you.
Bonus points if you do this morning exercise in the sun, because sunlight will also trigger a sympathetic nervous system response that regulates our circadian rhythm.
More on Managing ADHD
The truth is, these strategies work for everybody, not just those with ADHD. However, if you have ADHD, you have to do more than others to develop systems and strategies to maintain attention and focus.
If you have ADHD, exercise should just be one tool in your toolkit, even from a non-pharmaceutical perspective. For example, supplements like caffeine can improve ADHD, as can various strategies like neurofeedback, as outlined in this article on neurofeedback for ADHD.