Can Exercise reduce Anxiety in children on the Autism Spectrum?
Exercise helps all of us maintain physical health, but while the benefits of exercise on the body are well documented and irrefutable, its effect on the mind has not been extensively studied upon until recently. These days, we know that exercise can reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve memory, sleeping patterns, and overall emotional well being. Children with ASD are no exception, and research has consistently shown that exercise and other physical activities helps reduce stress, anxiety, and in turn, several stereotypical ASD behaviors.
So, how exactly does exercise reduce anxiety in children with ASD? First, exercise has a direct effect on the brain. Exercise releases endorphins that act on the brain by increasing feelings of wellbeing, and exercise also stimulates brain centers responsible for short-term memory. More mental clarity, good feelings, and better physical health translate into less harmful behaviors.
Exercise also helps children better engage in the environment, gain body awareness and keep a healthy weight. These benefits have a direct result on emotional behavior. Also, for children with ASD, exercises that mimic some of their repetitive movements can help retrain the brain and reduce their episodes. By reducing the occurrence and severity of symptoms of ASD, children can enjoy longer periods of relaxation and much greater anxiety relief than if they remained completely sedentary.
Furthermore, anxiety relief is not the only benefit of exercise in the ASD population. Research conducted by experts in the University of California at Santa Barbara showed that individuals with ASD are more likely than their peers to have difficulties with balance, posture, gait, speed and flexibility, so a well-planned exercise regime can also help improve their performance in these areas. Getting into the habit early can really improve their quality of life and create a positive outlet to let off steam and channel their needs for routine and structure into a very beneficial habit. These are all reasons why exercise is especially important for children with ASD.
If you are unsure of how exercise can help alleviate anxiety for a child, you can try simple some exercises and gauge their effects. At the very least, they will provide physical benefits. Here are some good ones to get started with:
1. Mirror exercises- Mirror exercises encourage the child to observe another person carefully. Sometimes, children with ASD have difficulty interacting with others so this is a good opportunity to increase social skills and body awareness all while reaping the benefits of physical activity. It is performed by standing to face with a partner and trying to mimic their movement as if looking at oneself in a mirror.
2. Jumping jacks- These exercises require no equipment and can greatly improve cardiovascular endurance. Furthermore, they incorporate repetitive behavior, so children can indulge in that in a healthy way.
3. Bear crawls- These simple exercises develop kinesthetic awareness and increase strength, coordination, and motor planning. Children may also enjoy the activity if thought of as a mimicking game. They perform the crawl by placing their hands and knees on the floor and using them to move around. The child’s legs should be slightly bent and their palms wide open.
Lastly, be sure to consult with a medical provider before starting any exercise regimen. Start slow and at a low intensity and slowly increase intensity. With consistency and hard work, you can help your child reduce anxiety and feel better physically and emotionally!