A new small study serves as a reminder that breaking a sweat is a drug-free way to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of health issues like ADHD and depression.
In the report, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers assessed 32 adult men who reported having symptoms of ADHD. (Of those 32, two had an official diagnosis from a psychiatrist.) The researchers measured the men’s ability to pay attention, their motivation to perform mental tasks, leg hyperactivity, and their mood before and after they either sat or biked for 20 minutes. The researchers thought that perhaps exercise would behave similarly in the brain as stimulant medications frequently taken by people with ADHD.
“There is very strong and consistent evidence that a single short, moderate-intensity bout of exercise is associated with increased feelings of energy, so if people need a reason to work out, the energy boost with exercise is a worthwhile one,” says study author Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D., of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
Exercising, the study authors report, did enhance motivation and overall energy levels. The men also reported fewer feelings of fatigue, depression and confusion after they exercised. It didn’t have an effect on cognitive abilities or levels of hyperactivity, but the study authors found that exercise also didn’t increase feelings of hyperactivity either. The researchers say their findings encourage more research on non-pharmaceutical ways to improve ADHD symptoms.
“The effects of acute moderate exercise may not last as long as the effects of stimulant medications based on findings from the current study, but the effects of acute exercise could be more immediate, meaning individuals who exercise could benefit sooner than those who chose to use a stimulant medication,” the authors write. They also say that if a person’s medication is not immediately available, they may want to consider exercise as “a useful adjunct for immediate ADHD symptom management.” More research is needed before people make any treatment decisions based on these findings.
The number of people in the study is very small, so nothing terribly definitive can be gleaned from the work, but it adds support to the argument that exercise does more than improve fitness and muscle mass. Another much larger study published in 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry followed 11,000 people for 50 years. They found that people who are active during adulthood had fewer symptoms of depression than people who didn’t work out as often.
Evidence has suggested that exercise can spur the release of hormones and chemicals like endorphins that can alter a person’s mood, and a 2015 study suggested that exercise may also be able to prevent the onset of depression symptoms in the first place. The study looked at 10 years of data from nearly 3,000 adult women and found that those who were getting in 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week had fewer depression symptoms. The more exercise the women did, the less likely they were to report feeling depressed.
Given the high number of people in the United States who don’t exercise and the high number of people who take drugs for depression, experts are recommending that exercise be considered as a first line treatment. More data is needed to support the advice, but there are plenty of other reasons to work out for better health.