Adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are found to cope better with its symptoms when they engage in even brief exercise, scientists have said. A 20-minute workout can leaves people with the disorder feeling less stressed out and more motivated to complete the daily tasks.

In the UK, medication constitutes the first line of treatment for adults with ADHD, in accordance with health and care institute NICE's guidelines. These drugs – stimulant medication related to amphetamines – can often be abused, so this approach is not always ideal.

ADHD patients are also likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem because of their symptoms, so psychological interventions are frequently needed but not always available.

The recent study, published in the journal Medicine and science in sports and exercise, looks at an alternative approach to give patients another tool to improve their condition. Short workouts appeared to be an interesting strategy with a real effect on symptoms.

"Exercise is already known as a stress reducer and mood booster, so it really has the potential to help those suffering with ADHD symptoms," explains senior author Patrick O'Connor. "And while prescription drugs can be used to treat these symptoms, there's an increased risk of abuse or dependence and negative side effects. Those risks don't exist with exercise."

More motivated, less confused

Some 32 men with significant symptoms of ADHD were recruited for the research and asked to cycle at moderate intensity for 20 minutes. On another day, they were asked to rest for 20 minutes – a control condition. The participants were also asked to complete a task in both instances, before and twice after the cycling session or the rest session.

One of the symptoms of adults with ADHD is that they get easily distracted, find it hard to finish tasks they have started and to pay attention to details, especially for something they may find dull – so completing the task set by the scientists could potentially have been a problem.

The researchers discovered that the young men were focused and had more motivation to complete the task after exercising. They also reported feeling more energised and less confused. Practising sports, even a short amount of time on a single day, thus appeared to help adults with ADHD feel better about performing tasks.

The number of participants is here quite small, so more research will be needed. But these findings are already promising and confirm the results of previous studies, which indicated that sport had a positive impact on the wellbeing of adults with ADHD.

These patients benefit psychologically from short workouts, similar to the benefits enjoyed by typical adults who work out, and this can be a useful approach to help patients on the long term.

"The reduced feelings of confusion and increased motivation to perform a cognitive task suggest that other types of acute exercise also may benefit cognitive performance," added study co-author Kathryn Fritz. "We speculate that a different mode or duration or intensity of exercise, other than a boring cycle ride in a sterile lab, may show larger cognitive effects for those suffering from ADHD symptoms."

Facts about adults with ADHD

ADHD is a condition that is usually picked up in childhood but tends to get better with age. However, some adults suffer from it: 3-5 % of schoolchildren are diagnosed with ADHD, and two-thirds of these keep having problems as teenagers. Then, only two-thirds of those adolescents go on to have ADHD in adulthood.

Most common symptoms for adults are similar to children's, but can be much more difficult to manage. They may get worse with age and affect every aspect of the person's life. They might make it hard to build social relations. In a professional setting, ADHD can also be difficult to manage.

Symptoms include a tendency to be easily distracted, an inability to focus and to listen to people (often ending up interrupting them), a difficulty to finish tasks, restlessness and a short-temper. Depression, anxiety, drug abuse and low self-esteem are also common, resulting from the distress of people who find it hard to cope with their symptoms.

Medication is the first line treatment for adults in the UK, with methylphenidate, a stimulant, being the first‑line drug. Other drugs and psychological intervention can also be considered if methylphenidate is ineffective, unacceptable or if there is residual impairment.

It is estimated that genetic causes are most to blame for the development of ADHD. One third of those with ADHD have at least one parent which had similar symptoms. There is also evidence of differences in brain structure of people with ADHD.

Environmental factors do still play a part, and mothers who have used drug during pregnancy, have suffered from stress, or have given birth to a small baby are more at risk of having a child with ADHD.