Why my son with ADHD swims 4 miles a day

ADHD is no joke. From the moment my son was born, he was like an Energizer Bunny. He’d wake up early in the morning and go until he dropped at naptime. Then he’d wake up again and go until he dropped at bedtime. He’d play with toys manically and lose interest quickly — there was no idle time.

It was endlessly exhausting for me. At the end of every day, I’d say to myself: “I can’t do this again tomorrow. I don’t have it in me.” Then the next day, I’d have to do it all over again. I was obliterated.

I was saved by my son’s first summer, when he discovered how much fun it was to be outdoors. It was so much easier to keep him busy outside than in, and we spent the entire summer in the yard, speed-crawling from one activity to the next. I loved those long summer days.

Winter was another story. Utah winters are cold and snowy, and we were trapped inside. As my son got bigger, it took so much effort just to keep him from destroying the house.

When he was around 18 months old, he taught himself how to “mattress surf.” He’d pull his crib mattress out from his room and ride it down the stairs, crashing into pillows at the bottom. Laughing, he’d do it again and again for hours at a time.

My friends thought I was nuts to let him do this. But there was no way for them to understand just how much energy my son had, and how much attention he constantly demanded from me. And honestly, it burned energy. So I didn’t have it in me to stop him.

When our son turned 2, my husband and I decided to get him outside during the winter to keep us all from going crazy. We rented the tiniest skis and boots available (they were still too big) and taught our son to ski. He fell once or twice before he started bombing down the mountain, with a pacifier still planted firmly in his mouth. He quickly became a talented skier at an age when he still needed two naps a day. By the time he was 5, he was skiing black diamond runs, something I could never do.

By this time, I realized my son is happiest when he’s moving. When he’s not moving, he gets agitated and things get broken. So I signed him up for every physical activity or sport I could find until, at age 8, he settled into competitive swimming.

At the beginning, he swam one hour at a time, three days a week. Eventually he moved up to two hours a day, five days a week, plus meets at least two weekends a month. As he settled into a swimming routine, we began to see changes at home. He was calmer, less restless. He seemed to be better able to listen and focus, and fewer things got broken in the house.

About a year after my son found swimming, he was formally diagnosed with ADHD. In hindsight, it seems so obvious. He’s a motor with endless energy, always on the prowl for physical activity. We were finally able to put all the pieces together and understand why swimming every day seemed to help him so much in life. It’s almost like we found a way to manage the problem before we knew the cause.

At 13, my son now swims about 4 miles every day. He is one of the fastest swimmers his age in our state. He’s participated in national competitions and has won state championships. When he doesn’t swim, his whole life falls apart. Emotions run high, his energy is out of control, and sitting during class is almost impossible. Having an outlet for his energy helps keep everything else in his life on track.

ADHD still rules our world. It’s an all-encompassing, totally exhausting condition that few people truly understand. Swimming won’t change that. And as my son has gotten older, ADHD has also led to new challenges at school and with classmates, beyond his boundless energy.

But I feel like we’ve at least figured out how to manage one piece of the ADHD puzzle — physical exercise. It makes the rest of my son’s life possible.

Learn about the impact of exercise on ADHD symptoms. Check out eight common myths about ADHD. And read about how Michael Phelps harnessed his ADHD to become an Olympic swimmer.


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