Exercise as an Evidence-Based Practice

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Many teens and adults on the autism spectrum are less physically active in comparison to their peers.

Exercise can be used to improve the overall physical fitness of autistic individuals.

Also, exercise can be used to increase coping skills and decrease challenging behaviors (aggression, self-injurious behaviors).

In this post, we’ll be discussing how to create and integrate daily opportunities for physical activity for teens and adults with ASD.

Exercise is an evidence-based practice for individuals on the autism spectrum.

You can get more in-depth training about how to use them with Autism Focused Intervention Resources & Modules (AFIRM), a free resource offered by the National Professional Development Center (NPDC) on Autism Spectrum Disorder at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Exercise is one of 27 identified evidence-based practices.

Related reading: Autism Evidence-Based Practices


As an evidence-based practice (EBP), researchers have examined exercise as a way to promote a healthier level of physical fitness and increase academic engagement.

Exercise has also been studied as an intervention to reduce challenging behaviors such as aggression, self-injury, self-stimulatory/stereotypic behaviors, and time off task.

AFIRM identifies that most of the activities used in research thus far has focused on “elevating breathing and heart rate so that moderate to vigorous physical exertion has taken place.”

An exercise intervention typically includes an exercise routine within an exercise plan.

This exercise plan includes the duration of activities, frequency, exercise routine overall, and a planned time and location for the routine to occur.

Here are some commonly used exercise activities below.

Note: please consult a physical education expert, physical therapist, or medical professional if you are considering putting together an exercise plan for individuals with physical/mental health challenges.

Many individuals with ASD have motor coordination difficulties, muscular imbalances, poor muscle tone, postural difficulties, are overweight, and/or join sensitivities.


Types of Exercise to Try

  • Running

  • Swimming laps

  • Bike

  • Stationary bike

  • Trampoline jumping

  • Jump rope

  • Yoga

  • Cardio: sit-ups, chair raises, toe raises, leg kicks, crab walking, lunges, jumping jacks

  • Kick ball


Exercise can be used to address a variety of needs and goals, including the following:

  • To increase physical fitness

  • To increase preferred behaviors

  • To increase coping skills

  • To promote mental health

  • To decrease challenging behaviors


Exercise as an EBP is used by families and a variety of professionals including teachers, special educators, paraprofessionals, and therapists.

There are a number of resources available on the AFIRM website to help you with planning the specific type of exercise you’re interested in.

Here is the step-by-step process of using exercise as an EBP.

  1. Identify the event/activity/behavior that the learner could benefit from exercise

  2. Identify the type of exercise routine

  3. Create the exercise routine based on:

    1. Your child’s characteristics (examples: what type of physical engagement do they like to do)

  4. Train your learner

  5. Use the exercise consistently (use each time they are in that activity)

  6. Take notes & monitor how the exercise is used (you can jot down a few notes each time it’s used to see how long it is used, how many prompts you gave)

You can measure physical fitness and benefits from the exercise plan by:

  • Measures of frequency or duration of engagement in the activity

  • Cardiovascular intensity and duration (e.g., number of repetitions)

  • Muscular strength or endurance (e.g., holding plank position)

  • Body composition analysis

  • Checklists or scales designed to measure mastery of skills specific to a physical fitness activity

What is an exercise routine you use or would like to try out? Share in the Autism Grown Up Facebook Community - let’s chat!