Swimming: a Promising Treatment for ADHD

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Attention-deficit hyperactive disorder is a developmental disorder that affects young people’s attention, focus, and impulsivity. When untreated, ADHD can make it hard to complete tasks, manage and respond to emotions, and remain focused on a particular activity. ADHD is most common in children but often continues throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Today, there are lots of treatment approaches that effectively improve symptoms of ADHD and support young people to manage – and flourish in – their everyday lives. Many young people benefit from medications and talk therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy. However, those who prefer not to take medication, find it ineffective, or experience side effects, may explore alternative treatments that help improve the difficult symptoms of ADHD and allow them to embrace their skills and talents.

In the past few years, swimming has emerged as a promising treatment for both children and adults with ADHD. Swimming may help young people to improve their cognitive skills, behaviour, academic performance, and mental health. Swimming sessions also leave space for creative thought and free practice without recurring exercises, offering an interesting and engaging experience for young people.

This blog explores swimming as a treatment for ADHD, looking into the neuroscience behind the disorder and how exercise can affect the ADHD brain.

ADHD, Neurotransmitters, and Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a term that celebrates the natural differences in how our brains work and how we think, feel, and behave. Many neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism or dyslexia, are recognised as types of neurodiversity. This means that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the way people think or act and nothing that needs to be corrected. Instead, we should celebrate our differences and strengths, and support each other through the challenges that we face.

ADHD is a neurodivergent condition. That means that the brains of young people with ADHD look and work differently to other people. Some of these differences – like struggling to focus or inhibit behaviours – can make everyday life more challenging. But some people also experience other differences, like hyperfocus or creativity, that can shape and enrich their futures.

In recent years, scientists have found various differences between the brains of children or adults with ADHD and those without. But scientists are still not sure exactly how these differences lead to the symptoms and characteristics of ADHD.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

The pre-frontal cortex is an area of the brain that’s involved in executive functioning: higher-level cognitive skills that we use to control other cognitive skills and behaviours. Our executive functions, such as the ability to inhibit or control other impulses, help to prevent other thoughts, feelings, and urges from distracting us when we’re trying to reach a certain goal. Executive functions also include working memory, planning, and problem-solving.

The pre-frontal cortex relies on a delicate balance of brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters) to work properly. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals that send messages between different cells in the brain and the body. When these chemicals are unbalanced, certain processes can be disrupted, slowed, sped up, or changed.

Scientists think that people with ADHD may have weaker signalling of neurotransmitters (in particular, dopamine and norepinephrine) in the pre-frontal cortex than other people, affecting their ability to perform executive functions like planning or impulse control. They may also have weaker connections between the pre-frontal cortex and other areas of the brain.

Dopamine and the Reward System

The reward system is an important pathway in the brain involved with motivation and reward. When we engage in a beneficial activity, such as eating or spending time with others, our body releases a small amount of dopamine, altering neuro connectivity along the pathway and encouraging us to repeat the activity again. 

Young people with ADHD may have weaker dopamine signalling along the reward pathway. This means that they may be less motivated than other people to continue and complete longer tasks or focus on a single thing. Instead, people with ADHD may be more likely to engage in tasks that offer a more short-term reward, such as stimulating or even risky activities.

How Can Exercise Improve Symptoms of ADHD?

Physical exercise causes many changes throughout the body and the brain. When we exercise, our brain produces more of certain hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. Exercise also increases blood flow in the brain and affects the HPA axis, helping to regulate our reactions to stress.

Research has found that exercise may reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood while improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Children with ADHD who participate in exercise programs have shown improvements in muscular capacities, motor skills, behavioural reports by teachers, and information processing, as well as emotion and mood.

Researchers have found that exercise significantly improves reaction times of adults with ADHD, but not among those without the disorder. While there was no change in brain activation during exercise among adults with ADHD in general, they found that adults with a higher level of fitness had decreased activity in both the motor and pre-frontal cortex. These brain changes may improve attention and processing speeds, helping adults with ADHD to manage challenging symptoms. 

How Effective Is Swimming in Treating ADHD?

Swimming is a type of physical activity that lets children and adults think creatively as they exercise. It requires coordination of different parts of the body without the need for recurring or exhausting exercises.

Studies have found that children with ADHD who take part in swimming activities may improve their cognitive functions, behaviours, and academic performance. Swimming may also help to treat symptoms of depression, difficulties maintaining attention, and cognitive flexibility: the brain’s ability to adapt to new, changing, or unplanned events. It also has a positive effect on motor coordination and physical fitness.

These studies show that swimming may be a promising alternative treatment for children with ADHD, supporting them in managing difficult symptoms of the disorder. Swimming – and other forms of exercise – may accompany and support medical or therapeutic options, forming a whole-person approach to treatment that improves young people’s quality of life.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic sets the global standard for young people’s mental health treatment, making a difference in the lives of children, teenagers, and adolescents worldwide. Our whole-person approach combines clinical excellence with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, supporting young people to plan and build better futures.

Our philosophy of fairness and inclusivity embraces neurodiversity and diversity of genders, backgrounds, and other identities. We help young people explore different life paths and choose a future where they can be their true selves. Our centre is located in the sublime natural beauty of Malaysia, offering unequalled opportunities for enriching activities that open doors to exciting directions, new passions, and life-long friendships.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to help.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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