Why Move Your Body? Do It For Your Brain

By Kelsey Hess, Therapist Intern

Health becomes a priority for many of us in the new year. It is common knowledge that exercise can greatly benefit the body, but what about the brain? If the body and brain are connected, surely there is some benefit? Well, good news, there is science to back this up!

The Short-Term Benefits

In the short term, physical exercise elevates the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain (LaCount & Hartung, 2018). If you and/or your child has ADHD, these brain chemicals may sound familiar to you. Many medications for ADHD function to increase the level of these chemicals in the brain.

There are a multitude of benefits to increasing dopamine, norepinephrine, and/or serotonin, including improved attention, focus, working memory, behavioral inhibition and affect (LaCount & Hartung, 2018). Note that these specific benefits are short term (lasting a couple hours after you exercise). While exercise may not replace what is already working for you and/or your child (whether that be medication, psychotherapy, coaching, or a combination), it can most definitely boost the benefits of what is already in place.

The Long-Term Benefits

More good news, exercise has long-term benefits for the brain too. Studies have shown that exercise promotes neurogenesis (How to ADHD, 2017). What is neurogenesis, you say? It is the creation of new brain cells!

Breaking Down the Barriers

Last piece of good news, all types of exercise benefits those with ADHD. Use this to your advantage and move your body in a way that is enjoyable to you. Implementing anything new into one’s routine can be challenging, and exercise (even the word) can present its own set of barriers. Here are some practical tips to address common barriers:

Barrier 1: The word exercise is off-putting

If the word exercise doesn’t work for you (or your child), call it something else like “move your body time,” “play time,” or “game time.”

Barrier 2: Exercising is not enjoyable

Brainstorm: Use your creative ADHD brain to your advantage and think outside the box! Ask youself what types of movement you and/or your children enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’re more likely to do it!  For example:

  • School sports, community sports teams, or family sports

  • Take a dance class or have a family (or solo) dance party

  • Games: Tag, etc..

  • Go out in nature: walk, hike, snow shoe, etc..

  • Group fitness (added bonus of community) 

  • Go to a playground, walk around your neighborhood (make a game of it…but, maybe not video games, think more full body)

Barrier 3: I don’t have time

Too busy to exercise? Combine it with other things! Again, creativity points here. Some possible combinations include:

  • Social and physical health: Maybe you and a group of friends join a community sports team

  • Commute time and physical exercise: Get off a bus stop or two early on your way home

  • Family time and exercise: Include physical exercise in family time (see suggestions above)

Make it an experiment, maybe start by trying out different types of movement. See what you or your child enjoys and stick with that. You may surprise yourself at how easy it is to incorporate more exercise in your day once the dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin start kicking in.

LaCount, P., & Hartung, C. (2018). Physical Exercise Interventions for Emerging Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The ADHD Report. 26. 1-11. 10.1521/adhd.2018.26.5.1.

How To ADHD (2017, June 11). How exercise can help with ADHD (and How to actually do it) [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTIv5X8Bo1w  

General Resources 

Kelsey Hess

Kelsey Hess

As an Intern at the Hallowell Todaro Center, Kelsey is working towards a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University New England. She received her Bachelor's in Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. Kelsey brings with her three years of experience working in outreach with individuals in the community to meet their mental health goals. Kelsey is particularly drawn to mindfulness and strength based approaches. She views the counseling processes as a collaborative one, where client and counselor work together to define the therapeutic goals and course of treatment.