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.
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In every classroom approximately two children are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They struggle with attention problems and hyperactive and impulsive behavior. This has negative consequences for these children. For example, they can have difficulties learning, it puts them at risk for other psychiatric problems, and it can cause parent-child relationship problems. Therefore, children with ADHD do need some sort of treatment for optimizing the quality of their lives.

After psycho-education to the child, parents and teacher, medication is often the first choice of treatment because it is evidence-based. However, there is a growing group of parents that do not wish to medicate their child. They are concerned about the side and long-term effects. Thus, these parents seek other treatment. That is where they get stuck: which other effective treatments are available?

In order to develop new treatments, there is a growing field of research focusing on risk factors for ADHD symptoms. One of these risk factors that has been studied increasingly is nutrition. Nutrition plays a role in physical well-being, but could also play a role in psychological well-being and cognitive functioning. Consequently, dietary treatments could be an alternative treatment for children with ADHD. There is a long history of research in nutrition, but there is not enough evidence yet about the (cost-)effectiveness to implement dietary treatments in clinical health care.

Elimination DietSo far, studies examining the effectiveness of a so-called elimination diet showed the strongest effects (1). The aim of an elimination diet is to find out which products trigger ADHD symptoms. However, results of these studies are inconclusive because of several limitations. First, outcome measurements used in these studies were not objective. Second, studies suffered from a sample bias towards highly motivated and educated parents. Third, underlying mechanisms are still unknown. Fourth, long-term effects are unknown. Moreover, it is unknown if an elimination diet is more effective in reducing ADHD symptoms than a healthy diet based on the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines (2).

We thought: can we take into account these limitations and examine the effectiveness of two dietary treatments? This resulted in the TRACE study: ‘Treatment of ADHD with Care as usual versus an Elimination diet’ (TRACE) study. This is the first study to determine the short- and long-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of two dietary treatments as initial addition to care as usual as a treatment trajectory for children with ADHD.

We will substantially improve upon previous studies by implementing the intervention in non-commercial mental health centers, including blinded and objective measurements, and comparing two dietary treatments with care as usual. Also, understanding the biological effects could inform clinicians to potential markers and targets for preventative or individualized treatment. For this reason, we also examine the underlying biological mechanisms (e.g. mechanisms in the gut and brain) of dietary treatments (TRACE-BIOME and TRACE-MRI studies). We collect blood, stool and saliva samples.

The TRACE study is a two arm randomized control trial: participants are randomized to either an elimination diet or a healthy diet. The comparator arm includes children who are being treated with care as usual. Currently, we included in each dietary treatment arm about half of the targeted participants (N=81 in each dietary group). In the care as usual group, we included about one third of the targeted participants (N=60).

We hope to finish inclusion around January 2020.   am really looking forward to the results and hope to share this with you in a couple of years! If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via


(1) Nigg, J. T., Lewis, K., Edinger, T., & Falk, M. (2012). Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms,         restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(1), 86-97.    10.015 . Link:

(2) Izquierdo Pulido, M. L., Ríos Hernández, A., Farran, A., & Alda, J. Á. (2015). The role of  diet and physical activity in children and adolescents with ADHD. Recent Advances in Pharmaceutical Sciences V, 2015, Research Signpost. Chapter 4, p. 51-64.  Link:

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