Exercise and ADHD Are a Winning Pair

Exercise and ADHD Are a Winning Pair

Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, bestselling author, and Ned’s writing partner of many years, joins our host to talk about all the positive effects exercise has on your brain, including helping you focus.

Learn more in Dr. Ratey’s book, SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, or on his website, JohnRatey.com.

Please reach out to us with your questions and episode ideas. Write an email or record a voice memo and send it to [email protected].

Thank you to our sponsor, OmegaBrite Wellness! Distraction listeners, you can SAVE 20% on your first order with the promo code: Podcast2020 at OmegaBriteWellness.com.

Click HERE to learn more about our sponsor, Landmark College, in Putney, Vermont. It’s the college of choice for students who learn differently.

Distraction is created by Sounds Great Media. Our producer is Sarah Guertin and our recording engineer/editor is Scott Persson.

Check out this episode!

A transcript of this episode is below.


Dr. Ned Hallowell:
This episode of Distraction is sponsored by OmegaBrite CBD formulated by OmegaBrite Wellness creators of the number one Omega-3 supplements for the past 20 years. OmegaBrite CBD, safe third-party tested, and it works. Shop online at OmegaBriteWellness.com.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
And by Landmark college offering comprehensive support for students with ADHD and other learning differences. Learn more at lcdistraction.org. Landmark College, the college of choice for students who learn differently.

Dr. John Ratey:
Everything that you can think of in terms of exercise has been looked to show a positive effect on attention measures. Okay? Yoga, dance is very good. Certainly racket sports and soccer, basketball, anything you can think of improves the attention.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Hello, and welcome to Distraction. This is Dr. Ned Hallowell with a very special episode. Not that they’re not all special, but this one is especially special. And it’s because I have my dear friend and former teacher, writing partner, squash partner, mentor, and just all-around delight in my life, Dr. John Ratey, coming to us all the way from Los Angeles.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
A little background on John. John is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and he’s the author of a number of books. He really has paved the way first in the treatment of aggression and then in the development of exercise as a really powerful treatment modality in psychiatry. In 2016, he was honored as the outstanding psychiatrist of the year for advancing the field by the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society. He’s an all-around wonderful man and truly an imaginative out-of-the-box thinker who also has very stellar academic credentials. So it’s an honor, a delight and a true pleasure to welcome my dear, dear friend, Dr. John Ratey.

Dr. John Ratey:
It’s great to be with you all and great to be with you Ned. About calling in from sunny Los Angeles and missing you and missing both family and our getting together in your backyard and all that, but I’m delighted to be talking about attention deficit disorder and all the stuff that we’ve known over the years and have written about and talked about.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Well, let’s just jump right into an area of where you are a world authority, namely exercise. John wrote a book called Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and really brought to the general public the fact that physical exercise is not just good for your heart and your bones and your blood, but it’s actually really good for your brain. Do you want to enlarge on that, John? Because I don’t think most people are aware of just how it helps your brain.

Dr. John Ratey:
Sure. Right, most people don’t realize it, but when you exercise, you are using more of your brain. When we move physically, we are using more of our brain than in any other human activity. And the way we think about the brain today is that the brain is like a muscle. The more we use it, the better it gets. And exercise challenges, moves, makes the brain really work. And this is especially relevant for people with attention deficit disorder.

Dr. John Ratey:
One of the things that was in all of our findings, from Driven to Distraction onward, is we always talked about the benefits of exercise. We could see it, patients could see it, parents could see it. I just had, I did a course… [Mary Jane Beach 00:04:32], who you may remember, Ned.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Oh yes.

Dr. John Ratey:
She was in the course.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Oh wow, wonderful.

Dr. John Ratey:
Recalling, really, our first talks down at the Cape with her parents’ group, where we picked up a lot of information, including how beneficial exercise was.

Dr. John Ratey:
But now we know, we can unpack it. What happens? Well, when we fire our nerve cells so much, we release a lot of neurotransmitters and especially we release dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin a lot. And it sort of acts like exercise, acts like a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin so that when we move, we release these neuro-transmitters, which then has an effect on our attention system throughout the brain. So it stands to reason that exercise is a very good treatment or co-treatment for attention deficit disorder.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
As well as depression and anxiety, right?

Dr. John Ratey:
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Spark was written all about the psychiatric benefits of exercise, including very much so depression and anxiety, addictions, certainly attention. And a big boat of benefit is its effect on aging. It’s really the number one anti-aging tactic that one can have along with, by the way, connecting. Those two together are at the top of any wellness pyramid or list that you can find. That’s because exercise really does so much in our brain.

Dr. John Ratey:
One of the things that it causes, when we use our brain, we release a substance called BDNF, Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor. Well, we know a lot about this, basically a neuro-hormone, a growth factor, in the brain because it acts in the brain like fertilizer. Meaning it keeps our brain cells young and perky as well as it makes them do what they’re supposed to do, and that is to grow and grow in our information. So when we’re-

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
So exercise makes you grow new nerve cells, new brain cells.

Dr. John Ratey:
But that’s the second part of the neuroplasticity. The big big effect of neuro-plasticity is making our hundred billion nerve cells more growth worthy, more growth oriented.

Dr. John Ratey:
Another part that we learned in 1999 is that we humans are making new brain cells every day. And the number one effect on promoting new growth of new brain cells is exercise. And this is study after study we’ve had. And in Spark, I talked about a thousand different articles on exercise and its effect on the brain and made it palatable for people, hopefully, and how it works because it works magnificently.

Dr. John Ratey:
The best way to make a person ready to learn, that is ready to take in information, sort it and log it in is a bout of exercise because it makes our brain cells really ready to log in the information to grow.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
The cover of Harvard Magazine, which I receive every month as a Harvard grad, arrived today. And it had an elderly gentlemen on the lawn in a pushup position with a little toddler sitting on his shoulders. And the caption was, “Why exercise keeps you young.” It was very fitting for today’s conversation.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Then the next question is: what kind and how much? So people listening, I’m sure nobody would disagree with anything you’ve said, how could they? But then they say, “Okay, how do I get in the habit of exercising? Is it enough just to walk around everyday?” How much and what kind and how do I keep doing it consistently?

Dr. John Ratey:
Those are all very important questions. How much is, if you look at what Health and Human Services tell us, and that’s a combination of looking at all kinds of evidence, they say 150 minutes a week of exercise. What does that mean? That’s about 30 minutes every day or so. And what they say is that we should get our heart rates up to about 60 or 70% of our maximum, which means if it’s walking, it’s fast walking, it’s walking, pushing yourself a little bit, though. There’s no denying that walking itself is great. Walking will get you more focused and more ready to pay attention. Lots of studies showing that, that just walking on a treadmill and not really sweating but pushing yourself a little bit, getting a little bit breathless that your test scores go up about 20, 30%. A big part of that is the attention system is locked in and we have all kinds of evidence from all over the world, really, about exercise making people attend better and stay with it.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
I just wanted to confirm, you said 150 minutes a week?

Dr. John Ratey:
Yes. That’s the recommendation. Now, for boosting your attention system, you can do even very little. You could do five minutes of something like jumping rope or squats or pushups. Any of those will get your heart rate up and you’ll do a little bit, more than just moderate, if you do it for five minutes straight, and that will give you a burst of attention. The deal is the longer you do it, the better your attention will be. But you have to program yourself to do it.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
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Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Okay, now let’s get back to the show.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
I recommend to people there’s an app called the Seven Minute Workout.

Dr. John Ratey:
Yes.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Most people can afford seven minutes, but it’s a pretty vigorous workout for seven minutes.

Dr. John Ratey:
Oh, it is. It is. It’s 30 seconds on a bunch of different exercises with a short rest period in between. So it gets you moving and takes you through jumping jacks to squats, to push-ups, to lunges, to crunches, to planks, all the usual suspects for aerobic kinds of exercise.

Dr. John Ratey:
Most of the studies had been on measuring aerobic exercise, that is running, walking, swimming, biking, climbing, whatever, to get your heart rate up to see the change in the attention measures that they do with tests. However, more recently in the past 15 years, we’ve done a lot of work on looking at weight training, strength training with exercise. Strength training more than weight training. Just by moving your muscles and challenging them, you have this great effect on your brain. Almost as much as you do with aerobic training.

Dr. John Ratey:
That leads to what kind of exercise to do. Well, something that you’ll come back to, something that you’ll do again and again and again. The all-time best prescription for exercise is something that you like to do, that you do outside and you do with somebody or some group because that connection has so many other positives to it, but it also keeps you honest. It also keeps you coming back and doing it.

Dr. John Ratey:
Now this can be anything. It can be Zumba, it can be biking, it can be walking. Because this all challenges your brain, it makes your brain work best.

Dr. John Ratey:
Now, how to be motivated and how to stay motivated once you start? In January every year, people join gyms and the [inaudible 00:15:06] and go for a month and then stop. What happens? Well, what you need to do is remember how you feel the day that you exercise. So right after you exercise, that day you note to yourself, like, “Note to self. I feel better today. I’m more productive today. I’m happier today. I’m more altruistic, I’m less angry, I’m less hopeless today.” Because that is the only way to sort of get you to continue.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
I don’t think it’s the only way at all. I’ve been exercising for 40 years by playing squash with the same guy on Tuesday afternoon. And, and for me, reminding myself how great I feel, that doesn’t do it. I’m too much of a hard sell. But showing up for a friend, I can’t let him down. I have to be there. So to me, the key in making it sustainable is combining it with a human connection, with a friendship. And you and I, we used to play squash on Sunday mornings for a number of years until that place closed down. I think this thing of solitary exercise, I know I don’t like it. I know a lot of people do it, but to me, to make it sustainable, I think the best way is to combine it; a group who likes to play tennis or a group who likes to run together, or a group who likes to swim together or in my case, play squash.

Dr. John Ratey:
Right. No, there’s no question that that human connection makes it so worthy and bringing you back to it. And that’s why the reason why something like CrossFit has been so popular, because it’s a group. You get into a group or the running group, the walking group or playing squash, yes. I remember that very well. And then I ruined my arm after 25 years. But nonetheless, I loved it.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
That brings up another question that as we get older, and you and I are both in our seventies, as we get older various injuries crop up. But that still should be no reason to give up exercise. There are still ways for just about anybody to get exercise if they’re resourceful.

Dr. John Ratey:
Exactly. When you talk about ADD, and people all over the world have been watching after this and trying to understand what kind of exercise, how long. So everything that you can think of in terms of exercise has been looked to show a positive effect on attention measures. Yoga, dance is very good. Certainly racket sports and soccer, basketball, anything you can think of improves the attention.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Just another idea to throw out there in terms of connection is working with a trainer. And as you know, John, I worked with this wonderfully grumpy, brilliant Russian trainer named Simon for some 15 years. You did it for a little while with him, yourself. And that’s another way of getting you to do it. If you’re you’re paying someone, you have to show up. So again, it’s a human connection. You hire someone but it’s another way of getting you to do the exercise. I think part of your message is it doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as you do it.

Dr. John Ratey:
Yes. And if you’re constantly… Or not constantly, but if you’re pushing yourself to do more or do better, like for instance even playing squash, it’s competitive so we wanted to do better each time. We’d push ourselves a little bit to beat one another, or you mainly beat me.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
But you’d start every game by saying, “I’m going to beat you today.”

Dr. John Ratey:
We had fun, though. It was over and we were laughing and we were talking. We didn’t hold it against one another.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
No, not at all. It was wonderful. It was wonderful. It was wonderful.

Dr. John Ratey:
I do exercises all the time now. You can do it with COVID, you can do it in your house. There’s plenty of different YouTube to follow or just do it with your mates. But it doesn’t do the same as a squash. Are you playing squash now, Ned, with COVID?

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
No, the courts aren’t open, but my wife Sue, her gym closed, much to her distress, but she has this group and this trainer named Derek and they do it on Zoom. She’s in the living room this morning, doing these burpees and squats and pushups and weights. She’s a half an hour in her gym clothes on Zoom, and Derek is marching them through their paces and you hear the voices of all the other members. In spite of COVID and the gym closing, she’s still got her group and she does it four times a week and loves it. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Dr. John Ratey:
Because it does so much for the way we feel and the way we can attend and reducing stress and anxiety, which we know happens. It also boosts our mood because it changes our brain chemistry.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Yes, yes.

Dr. John Ratey:
The chemicals that I mentioned, but also on the endorphins in the endocannabinoids.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Don’t forget oxygen. I mean, that’s another brain enhancer and you get a lot of oxygen when you exercise.

Dr. John Ratey:
You sure do. You also produce more oxytocin.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Yes.

Dr. John Ratey:
Which is the love and bonding hormone. We produce more of it when we exercise. So when you’re finished exercising, you will feel more likely to be more altruistic, to be kinder, to be more interested in bonding from a biologic perspective. There’s a lot that happens in the brain, all for the good.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Well, my wonderful, brilliant friend, John Ratey. Thank you so much for gracing us with your really expert top-of-the-line knowledge on exercise. The take-home points, find something that you want to do over and over again. And however you find it, with a squash mate or a trainer or self-motivation remembering how good you feel when you do it, but just find a way to get yourself to do it because it’s one of those things that everyone praises but not enough people do. You could say the same for meditation, by the way.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
In any case, thank you. Thank you, thank you for joining us today. For more information on John, go to his website, JohnRatey.com. That’s J-O-H-N-R-A-T-E-Y.com. Johnratey.com. You can read about his books on the brain, on exercise, on attention deficit disorder, on diet and nutrition. He has a wonderful book called Go Wild about the paleo approach. He’s creating all the time and he has ADD and that’s what ADD people do.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
And please reach out to us with your questions, comments and show ideas. We really depend upon them. We need your input and we’re looking for it all the time. Send us an email or record a voice memo on your phone and send it to us at [email protected] That’s the word “connect,” [email protected] We really love to hear from you and your questions. We often put a show together based entirely on your questions, which I try to answer. sometimes they stump me, but I usually can find some answer or find someone who does know the answer.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
You can also follow the Distraction Podcast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Give us a like and a follow to stay connected with the show. We truly appreciate it as we’re trying to in the social media world.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
Distraction is created by Sounds Great Media. Our recording engineer and editor is the brilliant and always on time Scott Persson and our producer is the inevitably perfect, depressingly so, perfect. The sweet and lovely, brilliant, talented Sarah Guertin. This is Dr. Ned Hallowell saying goodbye for this time.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:
The episode you just heard was sponsored by OmegaBrite CBD formulated by OmegaBrite Wellness, creators of the number one omega-3 supplements for the past 20 years. OmegaBrite CBD, safe, third-party tested and it works. Shop online at OmegaBriteWellness.com.

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