Physical Exercise Alleviates ADHD Symptoms

Dr Shelley Hyman

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder which affects about 8-12% of children at school age. Typically characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsive action, it has the potential to impair an individual’s academic achievement, occupational enterprises and interpersonal relationships.

Both human behavior and animal laboratory studies have indicated that regular exercise can alter brain functions in emotional and cognitive domains. Specifically, this can include beneficial effects against stress, anxiety, depression, negative affect, self-destructive behavior and poor impulse control. Evidence shows exercise can also enhance executive functioning, working memory, attentiveness and positive affect. Even short bouts of exercise for 5-15 minutes have reduced both hyperactivity and classroom behavioral disturbance in the short term.

A recent study conducted in Indiana and Vermont involved 202 students between the ages of 6-8. Half of the students did 31 minutes of aerobic physical activity before the start of school for 12 weeks, while the other group of students engaged in a sedentary, classroom-based activity.

The study included students both of typical development, and others who were classified as “at risk” for developing ADHD, with elevated symptoms of the disorder. The study found children who had been previously exercising demonstrated greater improvements in areas such as attention and mood than did those in the sedentary groups. The benefits of the exercise applied similarly to typically developing children as well as children with ADHD symptoms.

How exactly does exercise effect psychological functioning? Dietrach and Audiffren (2011) suggest that exercise reduces negative affect by disengaging the higher order functions of the prefrontal cortex, whereby unhelpful emotional processes are prevented from compromising the functioning of the implicit system.

Additionally, individuals with ADHD have reduced brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an essential element in normal brain development that encourages health related behaviours and quality of life. Studies have demonstrated that voluntary exercise is the most effective way to increase an individual’s levels of BDNF, and in this way, exercise has the potential to improve neurobehavioural deficits.

Overall, there is a plethora of evidence to support the positive impact of exercise in reducing symptoms of ADHD in emotional, cognitive and neural domains, as well as an overall improved quality of life.


Nadia Shnier


  • Archer, T & Kostrzewa, R (2012). Physical Exercise Alleviates ADHD Symptoms: Regional Deficits and Development Trajectory. Neurotox Res, 21:195–209
Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.

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