Illustrated By Emily Turner.
Currently, the main treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is drug therapy, which uses psychostimulants such as Adderall to help increase attention and focus. But, emerging research continues to identify physical activity as a potential "natural" solution.
Adderall essentially works by increasing the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which boosts mental acuity and produces a feeling of euphoria. And, exercise has been proven to produce similar changes in mood and mental performance. Research has shown that working out regularly leads to increases in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These proteins promote the production of new neurons — a process that is essential for improving memory. Another study from the Air Force Research Laboratory links a six-week agility training program (think drills that focus on coordination and speed) to improved memory and concentration. And, of course, one of the most widely reported benefits of exercise is how it prompts the body to produce feel-good endorphins.
These similar brain-health benefits may be why researchers are now investigating the effect of physical activity as "medication" for ADHD. As The Atlantic recently reported, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children ages seven to nine demonstrated enhanced cognitive performance and inhibition after a nine-month, after-school physical activity program. An earlier study found that exercise interventions in school-aged children can reduce ADHD symptoms; other research shows that doing just 20 minutes of activity can improve scholastic performance in kids with ADHD. Researchers are quick to note that further studies are needed, but the initial findings do seem promising.
The concept of “exercise as medicine” isn’t new. It follows the valid notion that instead of immediately turning to drugs, you should first explore lifestyle changes (such as eating healthier, working out regularly, clocking enough sleep, etc.) as potential solutions.
We know that the number of Adderall prescriptions written for adults between the ages of 20 and 39 is growing. And, while this recent research looks at children with ADHD, you never know; adding a brisk walk or an indoor-cycling class to your own to-do list might help you complete the rest of that to-do list more quickly.