For many of us with ADHD, personal health is often a low priority. Lack of organizational skills and an inability to prioritize make it difficult to establish, implement, and maintain the necessary structures and routines to sustain good health habits over time. Things that seem simple for others—like getting enough physical exercise—become monumental tasks.
But exercise has such a positive effect on people with ADHD! Here are eight strategies that have helped me and many of the people I coach.
1. Do it for your brain’s sake! Knowing that exercise is good for your body is only half the story. Growing evidence shows the benefits of exercise to your brain. It’s simply foolhardy NOT to exercise these days with the amount of stress we endure, with or without ADHD. Forget about looking good. Make your goal feeling good!
2. Make it doable. All too often we set ourselves up for failure with goals that are way out of reach. If your goal is to exercise for one hour a day, seven days a week, don’t expect to fulfill that goal immediately. This “all or nothing” approach is a recipe for discouragement and failure. Be realistic and start slowly. The key is making the goal attainable, and to be able to do it on a regular basic.
3. Set a minimum and a maximum goal. Identify the absolute minimum you would require of yourself—say jogging one time per week. Next, identify the most realistic number of times per week you could jog, a number that you could reach without too much stress—say three times per week. Your exercise goal would then be jogging once a week, minimum, and three times a week, maximum. You’ll most likely meet your minimal weekly goal or even exceed the maximum goal. What a great feeling it is to exceed your personal goal!
4. Create accountability through partnerships. If you know that working in partnership works for you, and that doing things on your own doesn't, invest in a personal trainer. If you’re unable to do that, find other ways of accountability, like joining a running group or asking a friend who is a dedicated exerciser to join a class or gym with you. It’s sometimes harder to disappoint others than it is to disappoint ourselves.
5. Be prepared at all times. If you tend to skip exercising because of forgetting your gym bag, keep an extra one packed with exercise gear in the car and at your office, one that is always ready to go when you are. A personal favorite of mine is to sleep in my (clean) exercise clothes. When I wake up, I can’t escape remembering what I was going to do that morning—EXERCISE! I have my clothes on and I’m ready to go!
6. Keep a scorecard. Because the ADHD brain lives in the present, it’s easy to forget past accomplishments, even if they’re only a few days old. To combat this, make progress measurable by creating ways to track your progress. On the five days each week that he runs, for example, one of my clients writes on his calendar in black magic marker the number of miles he completes. Or you can use your calendar as a “scorecard.” Mark an "E-Y" (“Exercise-Yes”) on the days you exercise and an "E-N" (“Exercise-No”) on the days you don’t. The point is to see your progress and monitor whether or not you’re reaching your weekly and monthly goals. Essentially, you’re charting your own personal history of successes. The key is to make your tracking system visible and simple.
7. Adopt a “no excuses” attitude. Consider the time you have to exercise as an appointment with yourself and do not break it. When you travel, call ahead and find out the hours of the hotel gym. If you catch yourself negotiating with yourself about whether or not to exercise, stop and simply walk out the door to the gym. Even if you go for ten minutes, that’s a win.
8. Create flexible structures. I use a system of “structured flexibility” when it comes to exercise. It’s simple. I make sure I never miss more than two days in a row without exercising. I MUST go on that third day, no matter what. This guarantees me flexibility as well as exercising a minimum of two to three times per week without fail.
I hope these strategies will help you, too. If you have learned other strategies that work for you, please share them with the rest of us!