Physical Exercise and Autism
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Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.

One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise. Studies show that vigorous or strenuous exercise is associated with decreases in stereotypic (self-stimulatory) behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness. Vigorous exercise means a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout, 3 to 4 days a week; mild exercise has little effect on behavior. Many autistic children gain weight if they have an inactive life-style, and weight gain brings another set of problems.

In general, exercise is important for both physical and mental health. A number of studies have shown that vigorous exercise is one of the best treatments for depression. Exercise can reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve sleep, reaction time, and memory.

Since stereotypic behaviors interfere with teaching, an exercise program might improve the student's attention in the classroom. Parents and teachers should consider including a rigorous exercise program in the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). (One should not assume that the student gets adequate exercise during recess.)

Since exercise is inexpensive, safe, and healthful, it makes sense to try an exercise program to reduce behavior problems rather than to use more expensive and possibly harmful treatments, such as drugs.

The effects of aerobic exercise on academic engagement in young children with autism spectrum disorder.
Oriel KN, George CL, Peckus R, Semon A.
Pediatr Phys Ther. 2011 Summer;23(2):187-93.

Vigorous, aerobic exercise versus general motor training activities: effects on maladaptive and stereotypic behaviors of adults with both autism and mental retardation.
Elliott RO Jr, Dobbin AR, Rose GD, Soper HV.
J Autism Dev Disord. 1994 Oct;24(5):565-76.

Effects of a leisure programme on quality of life and stress of individuals with ASD.
García-Villamisar DA, Dattilo J.
J Intellect Disabil Res. 2010 Jul;54(7):611-9.