When growing rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are discussed in the news, children are typically at the forefront of the conversation. After all, ADHD commonly presents itself in childhood and is one of the most common disorders in youth. However, unfortunately, many youths are not diagnosed or treated.
The number of adults being diagnosed with ADHD is also on the rise. In fact, the prevalence of this psychiatric disorder in this group rose by 123% between 2007 and 2016. Furthermore, it’s estimated that at least 75% of adults who have ADHD do not know that they have it as they were not diagnosed as children.
It’s clear that both youth and adults are dealing with ADHD symptoms on a larger scale than ever before. If you or your child is living with this disorder, there’s a good chance that you’re open to any and all suggestions for improving symptoms. As it turns out, sports may be one of the best outlets for people with ADHD.
Relieving ADHD Symptoms Through Sports
When you step back to think of the big picture, it makes sense that sports would have the potential to help alleviate ADHD symptoms. Doctors often recommend exercise to reduce ADHD behaviors, and sports are just a specific type of exercise that kids and adults alike can pursue.
But how do the benefits of sports come about? The answer goes back to the way our brains react to exercise. Athletic activities can increase the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which can boost alertness and even reduce the need for new stimuli.
This may be an explanation for why athletes with ADHD sometimes experience an improvement in symptoms from playing sports. Being active may reduce impulsiveness, provide an appropriate outlet for hyperactivity, and improve focus. In addition, regular exercise often leads to improved sleep as part of a good sleep hygiene routine which may help to decrease ADHD symptoms.
Professional Athletes with Symptoms
Besides the potential to improve symptoms, sports have another notable — and perhaps even surprising — connection to ADHD. An estimated 10% of all pro athletes have the condition, as compared to about 5% of the general population of adults.
Olympians like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are just two recent examples of standout athletes with symptoms. Other pros who have shared their diagnoses include J.T. Thomas III, Terry Bradshaw, Pete Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, Shaquille O’Neal, Karina Smirnoff, Justin Gatlin, Cammi Granato, and Andres Torres.
Sports success and ADHD seem to be connected, but it’s not clear exactly how. According to Dr. Zoe Martinez, an ADHD clinician at Done, “The impulsivity and hyperactivity associated with ADHD, especially in youth, can be associated with success in sports — especially contact sports.”
Other experts in the field note that in the case of elite athletes, hyperfocus could play a role in their achievements. A relatively common ADHD symptom, hyperfocus allows individuals to block out distractions and focus intensely on a specific task or activity.
These connections make sports a uniquely beneficial activity for people with symptoms. In addition to improving symptoms of the disorder, participating in sports can also harness certain ADHD behaviors and turn them into assets rather than obstacles.
Do Sports Risks Increase with ADHD?
Concerns about sports injuries may be of particular concern for some parents. That’s because studies have found that traumatic brain injuries, including mild to moderate ones, can potentially increase the risk of developing ADHD.
But as Dr. Martinez points out, the issue is a little more complicated than it seems at first. “There is some evidence that minor head injuries may increase the risk of ADHD,” she explains. However, it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg problem, because if more impulsive individuals tend to engage in activities that put them more at risk of head injury, it is hard to tease out genetics from the environment.”
People with ADHD may be more willing to take risks. And when it comes to sports, it’s inevitable that more risk-taking can also lead to an increased chance of injury.
Staying away from sports due to a potential injury isn’t necessarily the answer, especially when considering the substantial benefits this type of activity can provide. Instead, be aware of which sports involve higher physical risks and make thoughtful decisions about which ones might be the best fit for you or for your child with ADHD.
While sports activities can prove to be beneficial for adults and children with ADHD, it’s important to remember that a comprehensive treatment plan has the highest chance for success. Sports alone aren’t likely to reduce symptoms to the extent that most individuals would like.
Prescription medication is one of the safest and most effective options for treating ADHD. In addition to the fast-acting stimulants that have been available for decades, there are now non-stimulant options available as well.
Online services like Done make the process of ADHD diagnosis and treatment significantly more accessible than it once was. Plus, the success rates are impressive. More than 40% of
Done’s patients reported that their ADHD symptoms had improved during the first month with Done, while only 30% of Done’s competitors reported the same.
What’s to account for that discrepancy? Dr. Martinez notes that immediate availability likely plays a major role. “I believe more of Done’s patients may have immediate access to a clinician who can correctly diagnose their condition and when appropriate, prescribe medications which often work faster and more reliably than other interventions.”
Pairing up the medication with lifestyle choices like sports participation is a smart play for any individual dealing with ADHD personally or any parent looking for the best solutions for their child.
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About the author
Article by Dr. Zoe Martinez, a psychiatrist for Done, is a digital health company that is on a mission to empower those living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to reach their fullest potential. Done provides a patient-first, technology-powered ADHD treatment platform that keeps costs down and reduces patient wait times.
Dr. Martinez has more than 20 years of experience and is board certified in both child and adolescent, as well as adult psychiatry, and who trained in California. Her passion for treating ADHD stems from treating both youth and adults with this common diagnosis and seeing how much her patients benefit from appropriate and conscientious treatment. It is her firm belief that patients with ADHD can live more rewarding and successful lives provided that they have the right treatment and structures in place.
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