How sports might help in adult ADHD

A recent case in our outpatient clinic gave me an interesting insight into the link between professional sports and adult ADHD. An US-American football player who was quite impulsive presented for a diagnostic assessment. He had a history of childhood ADHD but never received stimulant treatment because his mother felt that she was able to cope by providing a structured environment. While he was not very successful in obtaining an economy degree during college, he earns nowadays money playing in foreign American football leagues. He is now 35 years old and started to think about what to do after his career ends and how his ADHD would affect future plans. He clearly fulfilled most diagnostic criteria but was not too handicapped in everyday life. Obviously, he found the perfect niche for a hyperactive adult with a high degree of impulsivity: American football. During the diagnostic assessment, he had to do a commercial continuous performance test which tests both attention as well as hyperactivity over 20 min. While his attention was not to bad, his activity during the tests was one of the highest scores we saw so far in our outpatient clinic. When talking to him about his test results, he commented that this result is typical for his adult life: professional sports taught him how to deal with his inattention and consecutive frustration. So while his ADHD was manifesting in lots of micro movements he nevertheless was able not to loose motivation and to sustain a certain degree of attention until the end of this test. So after having seen this patient, I wondered what evidence we have so far to recommend sports training in adult ADHD. Obviously, we might think of three good reasons for sports in general and in adult ADHD patients.

First, people showing a high degree of restlessness, will just enjoy sports and fitness training because it helps them to reduce their restlessness.

Second, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a decisive role in mediating all effects in adult ADHD. There is this elegant rat experiment (by Kim et al. 2011) about the effect of a treadmill exercise on the dopamine system. Spontaneous hypertensive rats, a special breed which shows signs of hyperactivity and is considered to be an ADHD model, were given methylphenidate or treadmill exercise. While the improvement due to MPH is not surprising, treadmill exercise impacted on expression of BDNF, a marker for neuroplasticity, in the striatum and the substantia nigra.

Apart from these direct neurochemical effects, some sports training teaches how to handle frustrating challenges and not to give up early. While this is a trivial statement for every ambitious sportsmen, there are only few scientific or clinical studies in sports psychology which assessed this statement systematically and almost none for adult ADHD (please correct me if I’m wrong).

Inspired by my patient’s story, I became curious whether frustration handling could be a way of how adult ADHD patients might learn to cope with their disease. Maybe some readers have own thoughts about this?

Reference:

Kim, H., Heo, H. I., Kim, D. H., Ko, I. G., Lee, S. S., Kim, S. E., … Kim, C. J. (2011). Treadmill exercise and methylphenidate ameliorate symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder through enhancing dopamine synthesis and brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression in spontaneous hypertensive rats. Neuroscience Letters. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2011.08.052

Oliver Grimm is a senior psychiatrist at the University Hospital Frankfurt where he is responsible for the adult ADHD outpatient clinic and is involved in the CoCA-project ( www.coca-project.eu ).

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