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13 Exercises to Improve Executive Functioning

Get up and get moving! Exercise is a great way to improve your behavior, and mood and revitalize the mind and body.

There are many science-backed reasons why exercise helps boost your mood, increase focus, and reduce stress. Exercise reduces clinical mental health issues by improving brain chemistry and increasing feel-good neurotransmitters. It also increases blood flow to the frontal lobes, which has a direct effect on improving executive functioning. Serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins are all positively affected by movement. 

There are ways to improve your focus and concentration, and just a few minutes a day of concentration exercises can do just that. 

What Does Science Say About Exercise for Cognitive Skills and Attention?

Research shows that aerobic exercise improves the cognitive skills of children and adults. And Exercise improves focused attention, the ability to switch between and within a task and to hold multiple items in working memory (Stern et. al, 2019). The effects of aerobic exercise of executive function actually increased as a person aged, suggesting that it may mitigate age-related declines.

Exercise can help prevent and treat conditions like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, and anxiety. Studies show that for mild-moderate depression, physical activity can be as effective as medication. 

Meta-analysis of 30 studies shows that physical activity has clinical benefits for individuals with ADHD. Ng et al. (2017) research showed that physical activity, in particular, moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise reduced the cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms of ADHD. In fact, moderate to intense mixed exercise programs alleviated symptoms in most instances.

Research has shown that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour can reduce the risk of major depression. “It may be possible to outrun depression,” says JAMA Psychiatry in a study published online on January 23. Researchers saw a 26% decrease in odds of becoming depressed for each significant increase in objectively measured physical activity. 

This improvement in physical activity is noticeable on your activity tracker if you replace 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate exercise like brisk walking. The study reports that any movement can help keep depression at bay. You don’t need to run a marathon, perform hours of aerobics, or be a CrossFit master to fight depression.

How to Get Kids with Attention and Executive Functioning Issues Moving?

For kids, get them on a trampoline, on a nature walk, or to play soccer. Morning or after-school exercises can help them prepare their brain for learning. We want to increase the power of concentration! 

Keep anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues at bay by doing at least 15 minutes a day of higher-intensity exercises, such as running, trampolining, or weight lifting. Or at least an hour of lower-intensity exercise, such as walking the dog or yard work with dad.

Intentionally moving your body more gently throughout the day can improve your mood, attention, and increased cognitive flexibility. In terms of the brain, exercise has the same effect on both kids and adults. You are never too young or old to incorporate activities that improve the neuroplasticity of the brain. Physical activities that improve cognitive functions include yoga, taking the stairs, riding their bike, shooting hoops, and just playing outside.

Benefits of Regular Exercise on Behavior and Executive Functioning

Benefits of Regular Exercise on Behavior and Executive Functioning

Regular exercise reduces the excess stress and anger one may feel. For kids, it helps to regulate their body and brain and reduce sensory dysregulation. Movement helps our brain to stay focused. 

Purposeful action helps one develop healthy sleep patterns and significantly improves cardiovascular health. Many children with behavioral issues and clinical diagnoses don’t get enough sleep, and there is a direct link between sleep and learning, attention, and behavior. 

In addition to the physical benefits, outdoor physical activities encourage engagement with other kids and enhance your feelings of belongingness. Exercising together through play and sports helps build relationships and boost self-confidence. Of course, when we are active with our kids, we both get so many benefits, and hopefully, you are having fun too!

You can exercise both indoors and outdoors! Just make it part of your day and find something the whole family can have fun doing!

Ways Exercise Improves Mental Health 

The link between exercise and mental health is a subject of many scientific studies. Often, researchers are baffled as inactivity can be both a cause and a consequence of mental illness. 

However, some ways exercise can directly benefit your mental health, such as:

  • Exercise can help improve your sleep and mood by affecting the levels of chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, stress hormones, and endorphins.
  • Exercise can help you feel good about yourself, be in control, and cope better. People who exercise regularly are thrilled whenever they achieve a goal.
  • Exercise casts intrusive thoughts aside in favor of new opportunities and experiences.
  • Outdoor exercises offer opportunities to socialize. Exercising with others is both encouraging and rewarding. 
  • Exercise ups your energy levels.
  • Physical activity can be a healthy and positive outlet for your frustrations.
  • Exercise can reduce skeletal muscle tension, which helps you feel more relaxed.
  •  Exercise improves your cardiovascular health and overall physical health. This is especially helpful to individuals with mental health struggles as they are at a higher risk of suffering from chronic physical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and asthma.

How to Get Started with Exercise

It can be tough to start exercising if you haven’t done it in a while, but creating a plan can help you get started:

  • See your GP or an accredited exercise physiologist before starting, and regularly as you continue your exercise plan
  • Select an activity you like, or have enjoyed in the past, that works well with your fitness levels and abilities
  • Start small – build up your training gradually. Switch up your activities so you don’t get bored
  • Write your plan in your diary or on your calendar, so it’s officially a part of your schedule
  • Regularly revisit your exercise plans, and experiment with something different if something’s not working out for you.

Exercises to Improve Children’s Executive Functioning and Attention

Exercises to Improve Children’s Executive Functioning and Attention

Improving your child’s or teen’s attention span and ability to focus can happen naturally with attention exercises that can be built into their daily life. Getting kids moving should be a priority to regulate their brain.

#1 Exercise Outdoor 

For even greater benefits, try exercising outdoors. Nature has a rhythm that calms the brain.

People report feeling more energetic, happy, and confident and less anxious, depressed, and tired after spending time walking outside.

People who exercise outside also say they are more likely to exercise again than those who stay indoors. And, people who exercise outside do it more often and for longer than those who work out indoors. 

#2 Trampoline Exercises

A few minutes of jumping on the trampoline in the morning or after school can give kids the sensory input they crave. This sensory input helps to regulate their behavior, improve lymphatic drainage, and increase oxygen to the brain. 

It can help kids pay attention better because their sensory needs are met, which means their nervous system is calm and regulated. Kids and adults alike can improve physically and cognitively when they incorporate trampolining into their daily routine. 

Turn on their favorite song and get jumping. A quick jump really can do a world of good in helping the brain become more alert.

#3 Bilateral Coordination Exercises 

When one crosses the centerline of the body, both the right and left sides of the brain are forced to integrate. This brain integration results in increased frontal lobe blood flow and activation.

Activities that cross the body’s midline don’t have to be super complex. Some bilateral coordination activities include swimming and martial arts. Brain gym exercises and OT exercises are known to improve coordination and brain functioning.

Bilateral Coordination Exercises:

  • Seated cross crawls
  • Standing cross crawls
  • Figure eights
  • Brain buttons
  • Hook ups
  • Ankle touches
  • Unlocking ears

#4 Obstacle Course Exercises

One of my all-time favorite play times with my boys was setting up obstacle courses. You can set up an obstacle course using everyday household items and balls. 

The goal of getting through the obstacle course isn’t just physical movement but listening for directions and improving problem-solving skills. I wouldn’t just throw a ball but tell my boys to listen for a number or a word that the ball was coming, all while they were moving. 

When you focus your attention on the task at hand, it helps build attentive listening skills, working memory and ultimately increases your child’s ability to pay attention. It also aids in the development of selective attention skills, which means the brain’s ability to alert to what is most salient and reduce distractibility.

It is fun and burns off a lot of energy, especially when the days are long, and behaviors are creeping up. As my boys got older, they set up the course and had me run through it with them. They got to think through how I was going to get through the course and how one needed to problem solve. 

#5 Bubble Play

I don’t think you can ever age out of playing with bubbles! Playing with bubbles can be downright fun and joyous. 

Bubble play can also be used to increase mindfulness and practice breathwork. Teaching children how to breathe in and exhale using bubbles is a great way to teach digraphic breathing, especially in resistant or young children. Mindfulness is connected to good executive functioning skills. 

Proper breathing is critical for a calm brain and regulated nervous system. If one is “chest breathing,” they are stuck in an anxious state. An anxious mind and body simply can’t focus, 

and taking deep breaths counters that.

#6 Swimming

Swimming is probably the single best way to meet sensory needs. The all-around pressure of water gives the body proprioceptive feedback that calms the body and the mind.

Swimming also involves bilateral coordination, increasing blood flow and oxygen to the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes of the brain serve as the job manager of the brain and are responsible for planning and prioritizing for future tasks, events, or activities.

Taking baths is the next best option if you can’t get to the local YMCA or town pool. I love to add magnesium salts to the bath to amplify calming the brain and body. 

#7 Team Sports

Not every child with ADHD or executive functioning difficulties is well suited to team sports, but it can be a great outlet for a high-energy child. 

Team sports can be a challenge for a child with ADHD because they have to pay attention to what they are doing and be aware of what their teammates are doing too. That involves physical and mental coordination skills, as well as focused attention. 

The more kids get practice modulating their behavior in a group, the better they get at it. Playing sports involves making quick but calculated decisions about where to move and to anticipate the play of others. One needs cognitive flexibility and really to be present in the game. Thinking about what is next and what winning “looks like” works those executive functioning skills. 

Painting the picture of what skills are needed and giving coaching tips to your child as to what they should do (not point out what is wrong!) can help your child to feel confident and gain executive skills. Make sure to be explicit and use visual language and role play out more implicit expectations. 

#8 Nature Walks

Nature walks aren’t just great for kids, they are awesome bonding activities between parent and child. Even teens can benefit from walking outside and connecting with nature. The slowed pace and sounds of nature provide a calmness to a busy mind.

You can gamify nature walks by having your child look for certain things while walking. As an “eye spy” of sorts, have them look for something purple or find a heart in nature. It stops the mind from wandering when we are focused on looking for something specific. These types of mindfulness-based activities increase alertness and fun too. 

#9 Yard Work

Kids benefit from connecting with the earth, and having your child do yard work is a great way to 

do just that (plus, you get some free labor!). 

Gardening, cutting the lawn, or watering plants helps kids get outside and move. In our house, we got rid of the lawn service and now my teenager does the lawn and trims the bushes. While they may not look perfect anymore, he does a good job and feels proud of his work. 

#10 Climbing

For the under-stimulated brain, climbing can provide just the right amount of excitement to keep it engaged and alert. We want our ADHD kids to find healthy thrill-seeking ways of stimulation, and climbing fits that bill.

Climbing also involves bilateral coordination, executive functioning, and problem-solving. You have to think and use planning skills when you climb, and those skills are foundational executive functions. 

#11 Martial Arts

Martial arts is popular amongst kids with ADHD, autism, and other neurodevelopmental disorders for a reason. It provides a structured, balanced approach to exercise. It has just the right mix of repeated practice, individual differentiation, and interest for kids who struggle with attention and learning,

Even though martial arts is complex, kids get plenty of practice and can work at their own pace, and that is exactly what our special needs kiddos need. They need to coordinate their actions and work toward a future goal, which exercises problem-solving and executive functioning skills. It is a great self-confidence builder and still has a team sports quality to it too. 

#12 Play Games

I think one of the most fun family activities is playing games. Card games, board games and outside activities are great ways to bond and laugh together.

Card games are all about strategizing and problem solving. When you play cards, you have to not only try to win with your hand but you have to also think about how each player might be strategizing. Card play is a good way to exercise your thinking skills and working memory skills.

In our house, we regularly played zombie apocalypse games, and holy cow, did we sweat! We would run up and down the stairs chasing each other. Sometimes we would use nerf guns, and other times would play old-fashioned tag. Exercise can be as creative as you want it to be, and kids can be the best creators.

As much as we hate our kid’s gaming time, video games that emphasize goal oriented problem solving, such as Minecraft are a good option when allowing your child to play computer games.

#12 Play Catch

Tossing a ball back and forth builds coordination skills, focused attention, increases alertness and, for me, is an opportunity to talk with your kids. As I always say, “When the body is moving, the lips move.” 

Kids of all ages are more apt to talk when they are moving. Connection with our kids happens through activities and the simple act of tossing a ball is a wonderful way to do just that. 

Citations:

Ng, Q. X., Ho, C., Chan, H. W., Yong, B., & Yeo, W. S. (2017). Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complementary therapies in medicine, 34, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.08.018

Stern, Y., MacKay-Brandt, A., Lee, S., McKinley, P., McIntyre, K., Razlighi, Q., Agarunov, E., Bartels, M., & Sloan, R. P. (2019). Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults: A randomized clinical trial. Neurology, 92(9), e905–e916. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000007003

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

Are you looking for SOLUTIONS for your struggling child or teen? 

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

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