Ready! Set! Go! Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism


From weight maintenance to better mental health, the benefits of physical activity are well-documented, but can be difficult to fit into packed schedules. Participation in sports activities helps children meet the recommended minimum requirements for physical activity, but research finds that children with autism are 74% less likely to participate in sports and 60% less likely to be physically active overall. Challenges with social context and physical coordination may cause children with autism to shy away from sports and team-based physical activities.

Even if increasing physical activity does not result in weight loss, it provides clear and important benefits to overall health and well-being. Interested in studying the psychological benefits of physical activity in children with autism, Dr. Joseph McCleery, a developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), says “Physical activity alone is not likely to reduce weight in the short-term, and it’s not nearly as important as diet. In our intervention in school aged children, we looked at emotional functioning and executive function.  We wanted to see how their thinking, ability to switch attention, and plan would change. We also wanted to see if physical activity had an effect on their mood, stress and anxiety.” Dr. McCleery’s team found that exercise was associated with short-term improvements in cognitive performance, as well as both short-term and long-term improvements in mood, stress, and anxiety.

McCleery just began work on a new study, in collaboration with Dr. Laura Graham Holmes from the Center For Autism Research at CHOP and Dr. Christopher Cushing from the University of Kansas, that capitalizes on the popularity of activity trackers and text messaging to understand how exercise, sleep, and eating affects mood in individuals with autism.  He will be enrolling individuals with ASD ranging in age from 12-60 years old.

If you are interested in learning more about this study, visit the Enroll page on CAR’s website.

For individuals and families looking for ways to incorporate more physical activity:

Choosing a Sport for Your Son or Daughter with ASD