How Exercise Can Help Improve the Symptoms of Autism

by Casey Ames

How Exercise Can Help Improve the Symptoms of Autism

We all know that exercise is important for good health. When you exercise regularly, you help your physical body- your muscles, heart, and lungs- stay healthy and strong. You also benefit your mental health. Your brain releases endorphins, which help fight against stress and depression. You just overall tend to feel better when you are active!

It can be particularly important for children with autism to exercise, even helping to improve their autistic symptoms. And since children with autism tend to spend more time playing video games and watching tv than their peers, it’s important to make sure they are being active!


While there are many things you can do to help your child’s autistic symptoms, like improving their gut bacteria or avoiding MSG, it turns out exercise is a major win that takes relatively little work. A meta-analysis that looked at 16 different studies found that there were “robust benefits of physical exercise on the patients’ motor and social functioning.” To be more specific, they saw a 35% improvement in the ASD symptoms as a result of exercise.

Another study found that exercise provides a short-term reduction in stereotypical behaviors in children with ASD. This third study was more specific in its findings, in that after exercise, they saw a decrease in aggression, off-task behavior, and elopement. They went on to say that it wasn’t because the physical activity tired the kids out, because their on-task behavior, academic responding, and appropriate motor behavior increased after the exercise.

So it appears that overall, exercise is a great thing to have as part of your child’s daily routine. And since it helps with their ability to perform better in school, having them do quick exercises before class could be a big win!


What is interesting, and something to take into consideration, is that individual exercise programs seem to have a bigger impact than group exercise programs. One study found that children’s social skills actually improved more in an individual program, which involves only the child and an adult leader, versus being part of a group. This doesn’t mean that group exercise isn’t useful. The study simply showed that individual programs proved more beneficial.

Another factor that studies have looked at is whether the exercise should be intense or mild. It turns out that mild exercise didn’t show much improvement at all on children’s autistic behaviors, but intense exercise had a really good effect.

The first study on mild versus vigorous exercise looked at the difference between 15 minutes of playing with a ball (mild) and 15 minutes of jogging (vigorous). It turns out that the mild exercise had no effect, while the vigorous exercise showed a reduction in stereotypical behaviors.

Another study looked at jogging versus mild exercise and found that physical self-stimulation and “out of seat” behavior only improved after jogging. The improved behavior lasted for 40 minutes! That’s a solid amount of time of improved behavior for only a short time spent jogging.

So it turns out that jogging could be one of the best and easiest options for your child. Of course, if your child doesn’t like to jog, you should let him try other things. After all, the best exercise is the exercise that your child loves and will stick with. It could be chasing a soccer ball, jumping jacks, or even jumping on a trampoline.


If you’re looking for something more structured for your child, I would recommend checking out Autism Fitness by Eric Chessen. It has some great resources, including videos and eBooks that you can pick up.


If your child has autism, exercise is proven to be beneficial. So, make sure you get your child off the couch and involved in some type of high intensity exercise. If you are consistent, you should see big improvements in behavior. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments! We are happy to help provide any more information.

Casey Ames
Casey Ames


Casey Ames is the Founder of Harkla.

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