Exercising with ADHD

Up until the age of 32, I was super lazy. I didn’t really do any exercise and I was overweight. One day I was on the train from the suburbs into my job in London and I saw an advert in ‘The Metro’ (a London free paper) from Alzheimer’s Society to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. On impulse I signed up (yey ADHD). I started half heartdly going to the gym and doing couch to 5k and some hiking and that helped take me from lazy to doing something.

When I arrived in Tanzania, I wondered what the hell I had signed up to. I was easily the least fit person in the group and I struggled pretty much the whole time. Plus I had never camped before and sleeping in the tents with a tent mate was awful. I didn’t know that I had ADHD at the time, but I felt incredibly triggered by the well meaning but often thoughtless comments and gaslighting from some of the other people on the trip: “I feel just fine, shame you don’t”. On the last day, it was clear that I wouldn’t make it so I had to stay at camp and remember crying alone for hours. The whole experience was a nightmarish wake-up call.

One of the amazing superpowers of people with ADHD is resilience. We have to be resilient just to function in this world designed for neurotypicals. When I arrived home I immediately hired a personal trainer and joined the local Slimming World group. I wasn’t about to let that bullshit get to me. This was September 2011, by February 2012 I had lost all of excess baggage that I had been carrying around and I ran my first half marathon in 2 hours 10 mins. I also successfully summated Mount Toubkal in Morocco.

Now more than 10 years later, I no longer run but I exercise almost daily (running has been replaced by short HIIT and weights based training). Exercising is something that I just get done. If I achieve nothing else all day, if I can say that I moved by body just a little bit, I have already won. You see, there is a wealth of evidence showing that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. People with ADHD have a dopamine deficiency and exercise releases neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Those with ADHD are also more prone to obesity1 and Alzheimer’s disease2 so exercising and maintaining healthy eating habits can help to reduce this risk.

How do I keep motivated to exercise with ADHD?

One of the challenges of ADHD is getting and staying motivated to make lifestyle changes. As someone with ADHD, I understand this and feel your pain but my advice is this: JFDI. The fact is I rarely have motivation to exercise, I just go into zombie mode and get it done. If you are completely new to exercise, start small. Maybe walk instead of drive somewhere that is a short distance away (and while you’re doing that listen to a Podcast or Audiobook that’s motivational. I am currently listening to David Goggin’s latest book ‘Never Finished‘) or take the stairs instead of the lift. Use bitesized rewards ‘Once I have achieved this goal, I get to buy/do this‘. Gamify your exercise – I really like the Zombie Run app (available on Apple and Android). When you feel like you can’t be bothered to exercise, tell yourself you will just do 10 mins and then see how you feel afterwards. Worst case, you do ‘only’ 10 mins of exercise, best case you do more. I find for me the best types of exercise are video based where there is some kind of accountability (ie, if you miss an exercise you have to keep up or stop/rewind) or live in-person or Zoom workouts. I have been training with Julia Buckley for years and found this works well for me. Finally, choose something fun with lots of variety so that you don’t get bored, and, importantly, enjoy the process!

  1. Fliers EA, Buitelaar JK, Maras A, Bul K, Höhle E, Faraone SV, Franke B, Rommelse NN. ADHD is a risk factor for overweight and obesity in children. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2013 Oct;34(8):566-74. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3182a50a67. PMID: 24131879; PMCID: PMC3859965.
  2. Leffa, D.T., Ferrari-Souza, J.P., Bellaver, B. et al. Genetic risk for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder predicts cognitive decline and development of Alzheimer’s disease pathophysiology in cognitively unimpaired older adults. Mol Psychiatry (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-022-01867-2.


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