teens taking a break from playing soccerAre teenagers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) getting enough exercise? According to a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology – Trondheim, teens with ASD exercise less than typically developing peers and peers with other psychiatric disorders. The lack of exercise likely has detrimental results on the quality of life for teens with ASD.

The researchers surveyed over 9,000 Norwegian teenagers—566 had psychiatric disorders and 39 had autism. The teens responded to questions about their level of physical activity.

Of the teenagers with ASD, 22 (56%) exercised once per week or less, the lowest frequency of physical activity identified by the researchers. Only seven (19%) of them played a team sport. The findings indicate that half of teens with psychiatric disorders exercise once per week or less, while only one-fourth of typically developing teens are in the same category. The only group of teens who excised less than those with ASD were teens with depression or other mood disorders. Among typically developing teens, 40% exercise four or more times weekly and 60% play a team sport.

The lack of exercise among ASD teens is troubling for two reasons. First, teens are missing out on honing social skills and making friends in a group sports setting. Second, a lack of exercise can lead to physical problems later on. Approximately 20% of toddlers with ASD are obese (compared to 10% of toddlers in the general population) and teens and adults with ASD are twice as likely to spend their free time in front of a computer or television. People with ASD may be missing out on building healthy exercise habits during youth.

Other research has shown that teens with autism prefer individual sports like running or martial arts. In light of these new findings, parents, clinicians, and educators may want to encourage teens with ASD to pursue any sport that piques their interest.

This research is published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.

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