Attention Spark

ADHD. While only two members of our family have an official diagnosis, I wouldn’t be surprised if we would all qualify for one.  Focus is not our strong suit.  Or maybe I should say that Focus is only one of many suits we wear.  Focus is just fine for a little while and under the right conditions.  The rest of the time we wear Procrastination.  Scattered. Forgetful.  Late.  Lots of suits.

In his book Spark, Dr. John Ratey extols the virtues of exercise.  You can read other posts about the book, here, here, here, and here.  Today, I take a look at what he has to say about exercise and it’s effects on ADHD.  He’s got a lot to say.  He and Dr. Hallowell have written several books on the subject, including their best selling Driven to Distraction.

It might help to start with his definition of the problem: ADHD, he writes is a “malfunction in the brain’s attention system, a diffuse linkage of neurons that link together areas controlling arousal, motivation, reward, executive function, and movement… But the glitch in the attention system isn’t strictly a deficit– it’s more of an inability to direct attention or to focus on command… ADHD is an attention variability disorder, the deficit is one of consistency.

Yup.  That about covers it.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll recognize all four of us in this description. And to a person, we all recognize that Dr. Ratey’s suggestion that we all add vigorous exercise to the plan is dead on.    Zach will now say on a regular basis, “Mom, I need to exercise real bad.  I can’t concentrate on this work.”

And don’t get me started on my Jekyll and Hyde husband.  (Don’t get me wrong.  He is always a good man.  But he’s a lot more enjoyable to be around after a 50 mile bike ride.) Do you remember how much more work I got done when I started exercising in the morning with the kids?  We’re true believers.

In case you’re not as convinced, here’s what Ratey says about the effects of exercise on the ADHD brain:

Exercise increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, which both help to regulate the attention system.  The are increased immediately, and with regular exercise their baseline levels increase .

Norepinephrine works to “tone” the brain stem, which makes you less prone to startle or to react out of proportion to a situation.  It also works on the basal ganglia, which is the primary binding site for Ritalin.  Dopamine helps with motor reflex inhibition.  They are both helpful in regulating an overactive cerebellum, which contributes to fidgetiness in ADHD.

Exercise also helps regulate the amygdala, which in the context of ADHD bunts the hair-trigger responsiveness seen in many people with the disorder.  Finally, exercise boosts the performance of the prefrontal cortex.  Norepinephrine boosts the signal-quality of synaptic transmission in the pre-frontal cortex, while dopamine decreases the noise, or static of undirected neuron chatter, by preventing the receiving cell from processing irrelevant signals.

The doctor’s Rx? For ADHD, he recommends 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least five times a week.  And he particularly recommends two or three days a week of complex forms of exercise, those that engage the brain and the body.  He suggests martial arts, gymnastics, mountain biking, rock climbing and skateboarding, which all three boys are currently attempting to master.  (One of the reasons I think Jeff was so successful before I came along and tanked his regimen is that he was an avid cyclist and rock climber.)

Our current plan for the kids doesn’t quite rise to the doctor’s level, and we’ll need to make some adjustments.  If I could just focus long enough to come up with a better plan…



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  • Jeff Barneson

    Of course it is true. After two hours on the bike this afternoon I was able to read email and write this insiteful comment on Tara's blog. Spark on!

  • Janis Henning

    One son and one husband with diagnosed ADD have made our household interesting and frustrating as well. Martial arts is a wonderful way to help these kids gain focus and control – many of our friends with ADHD boys have taken this route. My son has chosen to carry an M16 around Afghanistan. Hubby doesn't do meds, but I am wondering if the whole exercise thing wouldn't benefit us both in many ways — that is one I haven't heard of before. I am thinking I may need to read this SPARKS book this summer – it sounds interesting to say the least! Now with the warm weather finally on its way – our exercise plan can begin…….