Let's Move Your Body! Physical Activity to Treat Anxiety in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, May 13, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
N. Brondino1, L. Fusar-Poli1, E. Codrons2, L. Correale2, C. Panisi1, P. Politi1 and M. Vandoni2, (1)Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy, (2)Laboratory of Adapted Motor Activity, Department of Public Health, Experimental and Forensic Medicine, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
Background: Anxiety is a common comorbidity in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Particularly, during adolescence and adulthood, people with ASD may experience a worsening in anxiety symptoms as a result of entering more complex social situations and of becoming more aware of their interpersonal difficulties. To date, pharmacological treatments (such as antidepressants) have showed preliminary efficacy, but data are still sparse and medications can be burdened by side effects. On the other hand, cognitive-behavioral therapy seems promising, but, presently, there are no empirically supported treatments for anxiety in ASD. It is well-known that physical activity is associated with a wide range of health benefits. In particular, aerobic exercise seems to exert an anxiolytic effect on healthy controls as well as on patients with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.

Objectives:  the present randomized study aimed to evaluate the effect of physical activity on anxiety levels in a sample of adults with ASD

Methods: Our study planned to recruit 20 participants who were randomly assigned to treatment or waiting list. Treatment consisted in one and a half hour per week of aerobic physical workout. Exercise sessions lasted for three months and subjects were required to attend at least 10 sessions. Heart rate and activity counts have been recorded during treatment sessions. Anxiety was evaluated using self-report questionnaires (i.e. Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale) as well as clinician-rated instruments (i.e. Hamilton Anxiety Scale). Additionally, cortisol diurnal variation was measured before and after treatment.

Results:  all patients in the treatment arm experienced improvement in symptoms and there was a significant decrease in self-report anxiety (p<0.05).

Conclusions: physical activity may represent an alternative effective treatment for anxiety in this patient group.