Sweat It Out? The Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognition and Behavior in Children and Adults With ADHD: A Systematic Literature Review

J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2017 Feb;124(Suppl 1):3-26. doi: 10.1007/s00702-016-1593-7. Epub 2016 Jul 11.


As attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most frequently diagnosed developmental disorders in childhood, effective yet safe treatment options are highly important. Recent research introduced physical exercise as a potential treatment option, particularly for children with ADHD. The aim of this review was to systematically analyze potential acute and chronic effects of cardio and non-cardio exercise on a broad range of functions in children with ADHD and to explore this in adults as well. Literature on physical exercise in patients with ADHD was systematically reviewed based on categorizations for exercise type (cardio versus non-cardio), effect type (acute versus chronic), and outcome measure (cognitive, behavioral/socio-emotional, and physical/(neuro)physiological). Furthermore, the methodological quality of the reviewed papers was addressed. Cardio exercise seems acutely beneficial regarding various executive functions (e.g., impulsivity), response time and several physical measures. Beneficial chronic effects of cardio exercise were found on various functions as well, including executive functions, attention and behavior. The acute and chronic effects of non-cardio exercise remain more questionable but seem predominantly positive too. Research provides evidence that physical exercise represents a promising alternative or additional treatment option for patients with ADHD. Acute and chronic beneficial effects of especially cardio exercise were reported with regard to several cognitive, behavioral, and socio-emotional functions. Although physical exercise may therefore represent an effective treatment option that could be combined with other treatment approaches of ADHD, more well-controlled studies on this topic, in both children and adults, are needed.

Keywords: ADHD; Adults; Behavior; Children; Cognition; Exercise; Physical.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / psychology*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / therapy*
  • Cognition
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Exercise Therapy* / methods
  • Humans