Exercise has been shown to be effective in controlling attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder symptoms, and carries only positive side effects.
Every year in the United States doctors write 20 million prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin to give to kids for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it goes up every year. In fact, more than any other drug class: another 800,000 added every year to that 20 million. That's a lot of amphetamines for a lot of kids.
These drugs are thought to act by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Guess what else can increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels? Exercise. And it happens within minutes of getting on a bike, the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine shoot up. Medications take an hour to work; physical activity works almost immediately. But does it work for ADHD? According to the latest review, there isn't a lot of research out there, but the current evidence suggests that both acute and chronic physical activity can mitigate ADHD symptoms.
So while medications and exercise with regard to ADHD shows that they both work to more adequately regulate dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain, some of the new long-acting formulations of drugs can work for up to 12 hours, whereas the therapeutic effect of exercise may only last for an hour or so. But the drugs produce unwanted side effects and have the potential for abuse. Exercise has been shown to be effective in controlling ADHD symptoms and has essentially no side effects. However, that's not really the full story. It should be noted that a major difference in the 2 treatment modalities is that medications have a defined effect on ADHD symptoms alone, whereas exercise produces physical, mental, and emotional advantages that are far-reaching. So exercise does have side effects, but they're all good.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.
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Other benefits of exercise include a strengthening of cancer defenses (Exercise & Breast Cancer and Is It the Diet, the Exercise, or Both?), an improvement in cognition (Reversing Cognitive Decline), and a longer lifespan (What Women Should Eat to Live Longer).
This reminds me of other safe, natural, side-effect free solutions like tap water gargling to prevent the common cold (Can Gargling Prevent the Common Cold?) and drinking water to improve scholastic performance in kids (Does a Drink of Water Make Children Smarter?). The fact that they are cost-free is both an advantage (they're free!) and disadvantage (no corporate budget driving their promotion so we never hear about this kind of research). If only corporations could find a way to stuff exercise into a pill bottle for their stockholders…
For more context, check out my associated blog post: How to Treat ADHD Without Drugs.
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