Acute Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Executive Function and Attention in Adult Patients With ADHD

Front Psychiatry. 2019 Mar 26:10:132. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00132. eCollection 2019.


Aerobic exercise can improve cognitive functions in healthy individuals and in various clinical groups, which might be particularly relevant for patients with ADHD. This study investigated the effects of a single bout of aerobic exercise on attention and executive functions in adult patients with ADHD, including functional MRI to examine the underlying neural mechanisms. On two different days, 23 adult patients with ADHD and 23 matched healthy controls performed in a flanker task, while functional MR images were collected, following 30 min of continuous stationary cycling with moderate intensity as well as after a control condition (watching a movie). Behavioral performance and brain activation were tested for differences between groups and conditions and for interactions to investigate whether exercise improves executive function to a greater extent in patients compared to healthy controls. Exercise significantly improved reaction times in congruent and incongruent trials of the flanker task in patients with ADHD but not in healthy controls. We found no changes in brain activation between the two conditions for either group. However, a subgroup analysis of ADHD patients with a higher degree of cardiorespiratory fitness revealed decreased activation in premotor areas during congruent trials and in premotor and medial frontal cortex during incongruent trials in the exercise compared to the control condition. Our results indicate exercise-induced improvements in attention and processing speed in patients with ADHD, demonstrating that adult patients with ADHD may benefit from an acute bout of exercise. These findings could be of high relevance for developing alternative treatment approaches for ADHD. In addition, results of the current study contribute to elucidate the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of exercise on cognition and to better understand the role of cardiorespiratory fitness on these effects.

Keywords: acute aerobic exercise; adult ADHD; brain activation; cardiorespiratory fitness; cognition; executive function; fMRI; physical activity.