Exercise and Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Marlena N. Smith

In a recent review, Lang et al. found physical exercise to be beneficial to persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Persons with ASD often display deficits in motor skills and are generally less likely to participate in physical activity than persons with typical development. Lang et al. reviewed research studies evaluating interventions used to increase physical activity in persons with ASD.

Eighteen research studies were reviewed on various factors such as the study’s participants, target exercise, training methods, and findings. The studies included a total of 64 participants, ages 3 to 41 years with a mean age of 12.5 years.

The majority of studies trained participants to run or jog. Other target activities included swimming, water aerobics, stationary bicycling, weight lifting, walking, roller-skating, and stretching. To train the desired exercise, the studies used behavioral intervention, specifically training procedures such as modeling, physical guidance, prompting, and reinforcement.

The findings suggested that physical activity improved behaviors in persons with ASD. Benefits included:

• Decreased self stimulatory behavior
• Reduced aggression
• Decreased self injurious behavior
• Improved academic performance
• Improved fitness, endurance, and strength
• Increased participation in physical activity

While fatigue may possibly account for some of the benefits (i.e., decreased self stimulatory behavior), it does not explain other gains (i.e., improved academic performance); therefore, tiredness following physical activity does not appear to be responsible for the benefits of exercise in persons with ASD.

Research suggests that persons with ASD benefit from physical exercise. Additionally, the benefits may go beyond obvious gains in physical health. Further efforts to explore the benefits of physical activity in persons with ASD and effective interventions are warranted.


Lang, R., Koegel, L. K., Ashbaugh, K., Regester, A., Ence, W., & Smith, W. (2010). Physical exercise and individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4, 565-576.

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