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People With ADHD Focus Better While Exercising

For people with ADHD, moving the mind and moving the body seem to be related. I’ve talked before about how fidgeting helps people with ADHD concentrate, which is why telling someone with ADHD to “sit still and pay attention” is often a contradiction.

TreadmillBut what if we go further than just fidgeting – does breaking into outright physical exercise also make it easier for people with ADHD to pay attention? A new study published Frontiers in Psychology suggests that, unlike people without ADHD, people with ADHD do in fact seem to focus better while they’re exercising.

In the study, researchers at Bar-Ilan University and UCLA had 31 college students complete a test of attention while either sitting or walking on a treadmill. Two major findings came from this experiment:

  1. People with ADHD had faster reaction times and made fewer errors when they were exercising, while for people without ADHD the opposite was true
  2. People with ADHD only performed significantly worse than people without ADHD when they were sitting

Note that while some other studies have looked at people’s cognitive performance before and after exercise, this one explored people’s cognitive performance during exercise.

What’s interesting is that the results here suggest the ADHD brain benefits from physical movement in a way that the non-ADHD brain doesn’t. These findings resemble a previous study I’ve talked about on here showing that children with ADHD perform better on cognitive tasks when they fidget, which generally isn’t true for children without ADHD.

So why does physical motion apparently have unique benefits for the ADHD brain? One explanation is that the ADHD brain tends to have lower levels of arousal. Therefore, additional stimulation like physical exercise brings arousal up to an optimal level, allowing for the ADHD brain to work more efficiently.

If that’s the case, it suggests that other types of stimulation besides physical exercise can help get the ADHD brain into gear.

For example, I’m a big fan of listening to music while I work. People with ADHD tend to have different tricks they use to try and fight that feeling of being too bored and understimulated to be able to concentrate.

One of the most basic of those “tricks” that we fall back on even without realizing it is fidgeting, or physical movement more generally. Increasingly, the research suggests that we do this because it works. In fact, the latest study suggests it works so well that now might be time to start thinking about finding a treadmill desk!

Image: Flickr/Nicholas Erwin

People With ADHD Focus Better While Exercising

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). People With ADHD Focus Better While Exercising. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jan 2019
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