At a time when people more often reach for the remote than for their running shoes, finishing a five-mile race is a commendable achievement for anyone.

What if we told you that among the runners crossing these finish lines are children with autism? And that running is actually helping with the symptoms of autism?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The CDC says one in 68 U.S. children is on the autism spectrum – a tenfold increase in 40 years.

In 2012, Achilles International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing physical development opportunities for people with disabilities, created a training program that helps children with autism train for three months for a mainstream five-mile race. The program has allowed Achilles to gather extensive anecdotal evidence that shows that running helps people with autism improve their emotional and physical health.

Children with autism often have difficulty interacting with others, focusing on tasks that come naturally to developing children or even feeling at ease in their bodies. But while running, they often find an escape from their stresses and challenges. We’ve found that running can stimulate these kids in a different way and helps to anchor them in the moment, improving their connections with their families as well as peers of all abilities. Exercise also is important because half of all children with autism are overweight and at risk for diabetes, heart disease, bone and joint problems, anxiety and depression.

Running is natural for children and can be transformative for them and their caregivers. We have seen improved focus, decreased disruptiveness and aggression, less repetitive behavior and improved peer-to-peer interaction.

To help confirm the anecdotal evidence Achilles has been observing, the Cigna Foundation, a longtime partner of the nonprofit, awarded Achilles a grant to support research efforts that explore the impact of running on the mental and physical development of children with autism. Our hope is that the research will help prove that running can be an important addition to the range of therapies and medications that can help improve the health, behavior and quality of life for children with autism.

When our research efforts begin this fall, we will work with children at different points on the autism spectrum and measure how running benefits them. The culmination of the program will be participation in the Achilles Hope & Possibility 5 Miler in New York City. The race will prove that these kids can run among their peers in a mainstream race. Another goal is to increase the children's aspirations for the future. Having completed a race, they wonder, “What else can I accomplish?”

Parents and families affected by autism face significant obstacles in caring for their children, and we hope that together we can make a difference in their lives.

Karen Cierzan is vice president for Cigna Behavioral Health. Megan Wynne Lombardo is director of the Achilles Kids Running Program.