My relationship with neurodivergence and healthy exercise

More stories from Winter Heffernan

April 3, 2023

Photo by Marisa Valdez

Keeping healthy habits has always been difficult for me. My life is that of the torrential typhoon that creates the red spot on Jupiter, an ever shifting gyre of chaos where no consistency or habits can take root. Put simply, I have ADHD.

My goal last summer was to figure out a way that I could look forward to exercising and weaponize my neurodivergence to help, not hinder, keeping a healthy routine. This is an ongoing process, and I don’t claim to have a panacea, but I did find what works for me.

The first part of my process was understanding why I couldn’t form habits in the first place. I found that my life consists of over-ambitious planning, struggling to keep those plans then finally burning out. I needed to accept making small changes to avoid burnout.

So my first requirement was that it couldn’t be some huge exercise regime that I would try once, sputter out and feel bad about myself. By showing myself that I could complete smaller things, I could gradually form healthy habits.

My second problem was staying motivated. I needed something to draw me into consistency. This is where I began to take advantage of my neurodivergence to help.

For me, I am most at peace when I am doing one thing (playing a game, writing, etc.) while listening to something unrelated (usually youtube or music).

My second requirement was that I had to be able to listen to something while being active. 

Furthermore, I decided to listen to an audiobook and restrict myself so that I could only listen to that story when I was exercising. I would look forward to exercising because of the audiobook.

I decided to take long walks while listening to audiobooks. By the end of the summer, I was walking about 5 miles a day not counting my normal daily routine. This was a gradual improvement over time, precisely what I was looking for.

Walking not only helped me stay active, but it helped my mental health improve. Walking maintains sleep cycles, improves mood, and relieves stress. This further motivated me to keep walking day by day.

The benefits of walking also are similar to running. The main downside is, to burn the same amount of calories, you need to walk longer than you would run. This did not bother me at all since I enjoyed long sessions of listening to my audiobook.

I do want to temper this with a disclaimer. I don’t speak for everyone with ADHD, what works for me might not work for you. I understand how irritating it can be for someone to tell you some strategy like, “Just start making checklists” and then act like it will solve your whole life. 

My main advice for others is this, do some introspection and start small. Understand what prevents you from keeping healthy habits. Accept those problems and do not shame or beat yourself up for having them. After you do that, start small and reward yourself for the little things.

Heffernan can be reached at [email protected].