ADHD and Exercise

ADHD is among the most common psychiatric disorders, with ~3% prevalence in adulthood and ~5% in childhood. ADHD has a high risk for comorbid conditions. Comorbid means that one psychiatric disorder often comes together with another psychiatric disorder. For instance mood, anxiety and substance use disorders have high comorbid rates in adults with ADHD.

Adults with ADHD are also at risk for obesity and major depressive disorders and adolescent ADHD predicts adult obesity: 40% of adults with ADHD are also obese. These are worrying numbers. Many adults who have ADHD suffer from these negative consequences that come with their mental illness.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence of the powerful effects of nutrition and lifestyle on mental health. Exercise is one of them.It helps prevent or manage a wide range of health problems and concerns, including stroke, obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, a number of types of cancer and arthritis. Besides that, regular exercise can help you sleep better, reduce stress, sharpen your mental functioning, and improve your sex life. Nearly all studies revolve around aerobic exercise which includes walking, jogging, swimming, and cycling.

Recent research shows that exercise might also have a positive effect on ADHD symptoms such as improving attention and cognition1,2 Additional research is needed to explore this effect further, but we can take a look at the mechanisms underlying this effect.

One of the parts in our brain that is affected by exercise is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in controlling impulsive behavior and attention, and is positively influenced by exercise. Furthermore, dopamine and norepinephrine play an important role in attention regulation. Ritalin, among one of the most well-known medication for ADHD, also increases levels of dopamine.

When you exercise regularly, the basis levels of dopamine and norepinephrine rise, and even new dopamine receptors are created. These dopamine levels are also the reason why exercise therapy can be effective for people suffering from depression: low levels of dopamine are a predictor of depressive symptoms.

Taken together: people with ADHD are at risk for obesity and depression. Exercise has a positive influence on obesity, depression and ADHD. Wouldn’t it be great if we could treat people with ADHD with an exercise therapy?

The PROUD-study is currently studying the prevention of depressive symptoms, obesity and the improvement of general health in adolescents and young-adults with ADHD. PROUD establishes feasibility and effect sizes of two kinds of interventions: an aerobic exercise therapy and the effects of a bright light therapy.

Exercise and ADHDParticipants follow a 10 week exercise intervention in which they train three days a week: one day of only aerobic activities (20-40 min) and in two of these days, muscle-strengthening and aerobic activities (35 – 60 min). An app guides them through the exercises, and the intensity and duration of these exercises increase gradually. During a 24 week course changes in mood, condition, ADHD symptoms and body composition are measured.

I am really looking forward to the results of the effectiveness of this intervention in adolescents and adults with ADHD. It is great that this study tries to alter a lifestyle instead of temporarily symptom-reducing options. A healthy life is a happy life!

For more information about the PROUD-study see (only in Dutch) or contact the researchers via For more information about a healthy lifestyle and the positive effects on mental health, see our other blogs at



  1. Kamp CF, Sperlich B, Holmberg HC (2014). Exercise reduces the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and improves social behaviour, motor skills, strength and neuropsychological parameters. Acta Paediatrica, 103, 709-714.


  1. Choi JW, Han DH, Kang KD, Jung HY, Renshaw, PF (2015). Aerobic exercise and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: brain research. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 47, 33-39.
Please share and like us:

How many total food-and beverage-related decisions do you make in one day? Have a guess!

You reckon more than 15 decisions per day?! Congratulations! You are closer than the average (14.4) of 139 participants who were asked exactly the same question in a study by Wansink and Sobal (2007). However, you might still be far off. Let’s have a closer look at the study.

Being aware of the impact nutrition has on our physical and mental health as well as brain functioning, you might expect people to make well-considered food decisions. Wansink and Sobal (2007) aimed to answer the two following questions:

Are we aware of how many food-related decisions we make?

The results are clear, indicating a large degree of unawareness regarding the number of daily food decisions. The participants underestimated the number of food-and beverage-related decisions in a day by more than 200 decisions. We make an estimated 226.7 food decisions each day. Were you close? The authors conclude that we often engage in mindless eating which results in a lack of control of our food intake. There is a need to increase the awareness of the decisions we make regarding what, when and how much we eat to promote a healthy lifestyle.

These findings raise the question which factors determine our food decisions if we don’t. One potential factor that should be considered is our environment which was addressed in the second question of the study.

Food Choices cartoonAre we aware of the environmental cues that lead us to overeat?

To shed light on the second question the authors analysed data from four studies in which participants were either assigned to the control condition or a so-called exaggerated treatment condition. Environmental factors such as package size, serving bowl and plate size differed for the two conditions. In each study participants in the treatment condition served/prepared/consumed more food than the control group (between 29 and 53 % more). Afterwards the 192 participants of the treatment group were asked “How much did you eat compared to what is typical for you?” Across all four studies 19 % said “less” and 73 % “about the same” as normally. Just 8 % were aware that they consumed more. Afterwards they were informed about the environmental cues and asked a second question: “In this study, you were in a group that was given [a larger bowl]. Those people in your group ate an average of 20%-50% more than those who were instead given [a smaller bowl]. Why do you think you might have eaten more?” Interestingly, 21 % still claimed they did not eat more. 69 % justified the greater food intake with being hungry and 6 % with other reasons. Just 4 % admitted that the environmental cues influenced them.

These findings highlight the unawareness or denial of the influence our environment has on us and our food intake. However, they can be used as a starting point to improve our nutrition. Changing your immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help you improve your health. Start with putting the sweets just a bit further away from you.

Further information on how to make your environment less conducive to overeating you can find in the book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life” by Brian Wansink (

You can also visit Brian Wansink’s website where you find more cartoons – like the one above -amongst other things:

Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook.

Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123.


Please share and like us:

Food is addictive. It has been an addiction that has kept mankind alive for thousands of years. Today, hunger is no longer a problem in the developed world; it is quite the opposite. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

In order to maximize the nutritional value, humans are hard-wired to prefer foods that have either a high sugar or fat content. The amount of energy obtained from food is measured in kilocalories (kcal) per gram. Fats have the most energy (9 kcal) and carbohydrates (sugars and starches) have the same amount of energy as proteins (4 kcal). However, these nutrients differ in how quickly they supply energy. Sugars and starches have the advantage of being converted into energy faster than fats and protein. Protein is preferentially used for building and repairing different tissues, not as an energy source.

Once a beneficial adaptation of preferring fast digesting or the most energy-rich nutrients, has now become a risk factor for both physical and also mental health (1), making it an inevitable research focus.

In a recent study at the Yale University School of Medicine (2) it was determined that people not only favour fatty or sugary foods, but place the highest value on those that combine both. Participants (tasked to make monetary bids on different food items) were ready to pay the most for cookies, chocolate, cake and other treats that had both high sugar and also fat content. Equally familiar, liked and caloric fatty (e.g., cheese, salami) or sugary foods (e.g., lollipops) were assigned lower values.

Based on surges of activity, brain scans revealed that foods high in both fat and sugar were more rewarding than foods rich in only one category of nutrient.

Unexpectedly, it was also observed that participants were very accurate at estimating the energy density (kcal) of fatty foods, but poor at estimating the energy density of sugar-containing foods.

Once rare, but nowadays common and abundant treats high in both fat and sugar are most rewarding and therefore can very likely contribute to overeating. In addition, it has turned out to be difficult for people to assess the amount of calories in foods with a high sugar content. These findings taken together can help to understand and also hopefully find new treatment options for people struggling with obesity.

  • Hoare E et al (2015) Systematic review of mental health and well-being outcomes following community-based obesity prevention interventions among adolescents. BMJ Open 2015;5:e006586. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006586
  • DiFeliceantonio et al (2018) Supra-additive effects of combining fat and carbohydrate on food reward. Cell Metabolism 28, 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2018.05.018
Please share and like us: