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The Link Between Mental and Physical Health in Autism

by Jaime Friedman

April 04, 2023


The brain is a part of the body, even though it sometimes feels like it works independently. As we begin to understand the links between the mind and body, it is becoming more clear that taking care of one can have positive effects on the other.  

Physical and Mental Health 

The mind and body are intrinsically connected and helping one can help the other. When you consume healthy foods and exercise regularly, your body chemistry changes, and your organs receive chemical signals to grow faster and develop more. 

Nutritious foods provide a healthy source of fuel to power your mind and body. If you use that fuel to stay active, your body will reward you with endorphins. Endorphins block pain receptors and increase feelings of well-being, creating both physical and mental effects.  

Benefits of a Balanced Diet 

In 2021, Harvard Health Publishing posted an article asserting that, although “the research regarding dietary factors and depression is still inconclusive,” there are several noteworthy links between a healthy diet and mental wellness. Some studies cited in the article point to vitamins and nutrients that have been correlated with a lower risk of depression when consumed, while others connected high-sugar diets to the development of depression. Researchers cannot conclude that diet directly reduces depression or anxiety because of the complex nature of mental illness. There is, however, enough evidence to suggest that a healthy diet can help maintain a healthy headspace.  

Think of your mind as a car engine. If you put good fuel in and get regular service checks, your car will likely run better and longer. Your brain is the engine that runs the rest of your body, so providing it with the right nutrients is essential for optimal daily functioning. 

Benefits of Exercising 

Exercise can also be beneficial for your mind and body. Besides the release of endorphins and other physical effects of exercise, there are other benefits to staying active. If someone develops a routine for working out at a gym, they might have more chances for social interaction, and accomplishing personal goals can boost self-confidence. Someone with a workout routine can also have a fixed schedule, reserving time in the week to clear their mind and relieve cycles of negative thoughts. If you go to a gym to exercise, you can leave your problems at the door. Unless you’re a professional athlete, you probably cannot solve life problems at the gym, but you can put your problems on hold and collect yourself during a workout. 

One of the drawbacks of exercise relieving some mental health symptoms is that people suffering from anxiety or depression could find it difficult to start exercising. Lack of motivation is a common symptom of depression, but everyone has to start somewhere. Even if exercise means going for a short walk, adding it to your routine could be very beneficial to your psyche. The Mayo Clinic has resources on their website for people who are dealing with anxiety or depression and are interested in creating an exercise routine. 

Connection to Autism 

Physical health and fitness can sometimes be complicated for someone with an autism spectrum disorder. Someone with sensory aversions could have trouble maintaining a balanced diet. If your child with autism refuses a type of food, you can try alternatives that also provide nutrition, or you can talk to a professional about which supplements might help. Some children diagnosed with autism require physical therapy, so exercise can look different according to an individual’s needs. Others diagnosed with autism may only deal with learning challenges, and joining a school sports team could be an appropriate way to stay active. With autism, everything depends on the individual’s strengths and needs. Some individuals will be able to exercise freely, while some will need physical therapy. For children between these two milestones, there are programs designed to help develop physical skills and teach them how to exercise safely. 

For more resources on autism services, visit the Aspire Child & Family Services website or contact our office directly.