Can exercise improve behavior? Help encouraging a child who has autism

“Can exercise improve our son’s autism-related problem behaviors? What can we do to increase his activity?”

This week’s “Got Questions?” answer is from by Daniel Coury, MD, medical director of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN) and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of 17 AS-ATN centers across the United States and Canada.

Parents know of the health benefits of exercise. It promotes healthy weight and strong bones, reduces stress and improves cardiovascular function. Less familiar are exercise’s mental health and behavioral benefits.

Consider what the body is doing when exercising: The heart beats faster, circulating more blood through the body, including the brain. You breathe faster and deeper, increasing oxygen to your brain as well as your muscles. Finally, exercise increases the release of several brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These include endorphins and dopamine, which affect our brain’s functioning. Clearly, exercise can help the entire body, including the brain, function at its best.

Does this have any measurable benefit for individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders?  Definitely. Several studies have looked at the effects of exercise in children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They show clear evidence that exercise improves attention, concentration and organizational skills. All are problems for individuals with ADHD.

Encouraging research
One study found clear improvements in these areas after just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. Another study showed improved behavior, thinking skills and school performance after 20 minutes of exercise in children with or without ADHD. In the second study, the children with ADHD also showed improved self-control and decreased impulsive behavior.

Certainly, improvements in attention, concentration and self-control would help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And we have good evidence that exercise can provide similar benefits for children and adults on the spectrum.

In particular, studies have shown that exercise reduces problem behaviors such as repetitive behaviors, off-task behavior, mouthing, self-injury, disruptiveness and aggression in those with autism. We see these benefits last for several hours during and after exercise. These benefits can even produce a kind of positive feedback, making it easier for parents and therapists to encourage exercise.

Encouraging exercise in those with autism
So how can parents encourage their children – or any loved one with autism – to exercise daily? 

First, it’s important to consider your child’s preferences. Does he prefer jogging, riding a bike, swimming?  Tapping into enjoyment and preferences is an important first step to motivation.

While many people exercise for the sake of a goal such as losing weight, many individuals with autism need more immediate reinforcement. Your child may simply enjoy running or swimming. However, you may need to offer some additional motivation. If so, I suggest a little “pay to play,” as in holding off time at the computer or television until after the day’s exercise.

Finally, it will probably help if you join your child in the exercise activity. This way you provide a role model while he learns a new activity. The simple truth is that you’re almost certain to benefit from the daily exercise as well. So I encourage you to review your family’s daily schedule and set aside 30 minutes a day for shared exercise. You have nothing to lose (but maybe extra weight) … and a lot to gain.

Editor’s notes:

* Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network is a collaboration of medical centers dedicated to providing families with state of the art, multidisciplinary care. The AS-ATN was established to provide a place for families to go for high quality, coordinated medical care for children and adolescents with autism and associated conditions.

* Dr. Coury will be one of several featured speakers at this year's Autism Speaks National Conference for Families and Professionals. Read more about this year's conference in this blog by Clara Lanjonchere, Ph.D., Autism Speaks vice president for clinical programs. 

* Autism Speaks is currently funding a number of research and family service projects related to the benefits of exercise. Explore more studies using this website’s Grant Search. Also see our Family Services portal to “Health and Fitness.”

Got more questions? Send them to Subscribe to Autism Speaks Science Digest to get “Got Questions?” blogs and all our research news and perspective delivered to your inbox.