The Miracle You Can Have Every Day, Part 4: Exercise, ADHD, and the Brain

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It was English class, and I was the teacher. We were talking about a short story where a man who hunts becomes the hunted. The discussion was engaging, and I did what good classroom managers do, shifting my gaze from one kid to the next.

When I looked into Ray's blue eyes, I saw a tenth-grader who was both quiet and compliant. In fact, today he looked like he might even fall asleep. It's possible he didn't like the discussion, couldn't relate to it. But more days to come would show that Ray was a kid who no longer interrupted me, no longer fidgeted and fiddled and shuffled through his papers, no longer had much to say. Something about the quintessential Ray seemed lost.

The magic pill that had caused this miraculous shift? Ritalin.

I do not know if Ritalin saved Ray somehow. If it made him more focused on what he wanted to focus on, less forgetful, more happy. Or if it helped his other grades improve, or reduced his chances of stormy relationships and addictions. In my class, the only thing that really seemed to change was the life in Ray's eyes. It was gone.

The truth is that there is no perfect treatment for ADHD. Not even exercise. So why discuss the relationship between exercise and ADHD? Because in mild cases it can replace the need for medications. And in serious cases, it can replace the need for more frequent medication (and the medications can have uncomfortable side effects). The other reason, and this asks us to shift our thinking, is that ADHD may need to be recognized not as a handicap but as a kind of gift.

I assert this as both an educator and a manager.

Sadly, our education system is often a hard place for the wiggly, move-on-to-the-next-thing, distractible child. Regarding this point, Ken Robinson tells a marvelous story, where he makes the off-hand comment that the fidgety-child-under-discussion was born before we knew "ADHD was something you could have." Our workplaces aren't much better. We sit people down to do their jobs, ask them to attend long meetings where they sit some more, and see this as somehow doing the company a favor. Fidgety employees who aren't allowed to institute their own structures may become the troublemakers in the room, as they desperately seek a little drama to focus their brains.

ADHD is often misunderstood as a condition that prevents focus. It doesn't. It prevents consistency of focus. Give ADHD people a high-risk situation, an impossible deadline, some intense relational drama, a competitive or chaotic situation that requires laser-focus, and they are the ones for the job. (If you are thinking that ADHD people make good skydivers, litigation lawyers, emergency room doctors, and roller coaster riders, you are on the right track. If you are thinking that later, on the quiet ride home, they might forget to pick up the milk like you asked and then really delight in having a big argument about it when they walk in the door, you are also on the right track.)

Give ADHD people an inflexible system that doesn't take their gift of motion into account (or punishes them for forgetfulness and lack of organization), and you may plunge them into depression, anxiety, addictions, anger and hair-trigger responses. We are often unknowingly guilty of exacerbating these issues for people, in our roles as educators, parents, and managers.

To describe ADHD at the brain level is to require more space than an article of this scope allows. To put it in the simplest way possible, ADHD involves multiple areas of the brain and multiple neurotransmitters. Thus, "attention failure" can happen at so many junctures it's difficult to pinpoint. Stimulants like coffee, chocolate, prescribed or illegal drugs, relational drama, and motion provide relief and focus.

The bottom line? Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark and Driven to Distraction recommends that anyone prone to ADHD take control of their lives. Some may get along simply by exercising regularly and vigorously (movement and attention share overlapping neural pathways, which is one reason exercise helps; movement also immediately increases critical neurotransmitters and raises their baseline levels long-term). Other people may need a combination of exercise and a stimulant taken about an hour to 90 minutes after the exercise. Almost all ADHD sufferers can benefit from a rigid, predictable structure in how they organize their day and their activities. Ratey even recommends engaging an ADHD coach. And remember, people with ADHD are capable of incredibly high-energy, high-risk jobs. The world would do well to honor them for this.

Thinking back on my teaching days, I wish I could have a do-over with Ray, providing him with more structure that he helped create. And forget about a quiet discussion. Maybe we'd get up and move the characters around the room. Who knows? As we dramatically explored a story about a hunted man, it could have been more interesting even for me.


Read Part One? The Miracle You Can Have Every Day: Exercise, Learning, and the Brain

Read Part Two? The Miracle You Can Have Every Day: Exercise, Anxiety, and the Brain
Read Part Three? The Miracle You Can Have Every Day: Exercise, Depression, and the Brain
Read Part Five? The Miracle You Can Have Every Day: Exercise, Addiction, and the Brain

Image by Elizabeth O Weller. Used with permission. Information about ADHD and exercise is from John Ratey's book Spark. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us.

“Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Laura Barkat is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Laura Barkat, please contact her directly.”