The Benefits of Exercise for Autism: Mind & Body

When it comes to autism exercise, reaping the physical benefits is just the tip of the iceberg. Read on and find out how exercise develops the mind of those in the autistic spectrum disorder.

Disability or not, exercise has a lot of health benefits. It helps strengthen the body. It’s the key for strong bones. It promotes a healthy weight. It improves cardiovascular function.

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But these things are just the tip of the iceberg.

Unknown to many, exercise also has some benefits which are less familiar to us.

Exercise positively impacts the mind and improves one’s behavior.


Autism Exercise: Is there a difference?

When you look it up into the Internet, you’d find 2,160,000,000 results on the “benefits of exercise” in a span of 0.66 seconds.

That’s more than enough proof that there are plenty of established facts that exercise is good for both the mind and the body.

After all, the brain is the control center of our body. Every process that happens in and outside the body happens in the brain. It’s only fitting that exercise has a direct impact not only on the physical aspect of one’s body but even one’s mental health.

Since you’re here, you might be asking if there is a difference between the benefit of exercise for autism than those who don’t suffer from it.

This is the truth. The only difference with people who suffer from autism spectrum disorder is that they usually have a limited – or a very hyperactive – mobility.

Most of the time, people with ASD have problems with balance, coordination, and other motor skills. Because of these limitations, children with autism tend to be less active. It’s the reason why even the simplest activity like catching a ball can be a real struggle for them.


The importance of exercise for autism spectrum disorder

Studies show that obesity is prevalent among children with autism and continues even into adulthood.

The three most common causes of obesity for people with ASD are:

  1. medications that cause weight gain,
  2. picky eating habits that are high in calories, and
  3. lack of physical activity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone must engage in regular physical activity to maintain a healthy weight. Kids as young as 6 years old to 17 years old must have 60 minutes or an hour at least of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. The CDC’s recommendations with regards to physical activity are as follows:
  • Aerobic exercises (daily)
  • Bone strengthening exercises (at least 3 times a week)
  • Muscle building exercises (at least 3 times a week)


So how do you define moderate from vigorous activities?

Imagine how your body feels when you do some sort of physical activity.

When you walk with your friends, your heartbeat picks up – but only just a little.

You don’t have to pant or catch your breath.

It’s different when you have to run while being chased as you play tag.

Your heart beats faster than normal.

You literally feel the blood pumping through your body.

Your mind feels clearer because your body is able to circulate more oxygen into your brain.
More than that, you feel excited and giddy that you won’t get caught in the game.

Moderate physical activity is when you do something to keep active like walking. It makes your heart beat faster, but not as fast when you’re jogging or running.

Vigorous physical activities however will make your heart beat faster. Exercises of this type will cause you to catch your breath as you go about doing the activity.

In an article, vigorous physical activities for more than 20 minutes helped decreased hyperactivity, aggression, and stereotypical behaviors among kids with autism.

But as you have read earlier, the benefits of exercise for autism affect both the mind and the body.


All thanks to the brain’s neurotransmitters.


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Neurotransmitters and their impact on autism exercise

When you exercise, your brain releases neurotransmitters which then impact your mood and behavior.

These neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messenger. They’re special molecules in the body that can transmit messages between neurons (mind action) or between muscles (body action).

These neurotransmitters are dopamine, endorphin, and norepinephrine.


Dopamine: the feel-good hormone.

As the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine contributes to our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. When we do something that makes us feel accomplished, the brain’s reward center releases dopamine in response.

A release of dopamine is like the brain saying, “Let’s do that again because it was a whole lot of fun!”

In turn, dopamine helps improve our mood. It motivates us to do better. It also sharpens our attention to learn well and adapt to our surroundings.


Endorphin: the body’s natural painkiller.

A release of endorphins helps reduce your perception of pain. It’s the neurotransmitter responsible for giving you a deep state of euphoria – even for just a brief moment. This feeling of brief pleasure is more commonly known as runner’s high.
Doing any form of exercise releases endorphins. Your brain releases more endorphins especially when you exercise in a group. As natural painkillers similar to morphine, endorphins also relieve stress and anxiety.


Norepinephrine: the body’s stress responder.

Also known as noradrenaline, norepinephrine belongs to the family of adrenaline and dopamine. This neurotransmitter helps the body respond well to stress. How? By mobilizing the body for action as the brain readies itself to a fight or flight response.

Norepinephrine is very vital for people with low energy and low blood pressure. It does three important things:
  1. Increases blood flow from the heart
  2. Helps break down fat
  3. Give the body more energy by increasing sugar levels


People who suffer from autism spectrum disorder usually have an imbalance of norepinephrine. For someone with autism, a release of norepinephrine – or lack of it – can cause both excitement and panic.
The good news is, exercise helps regular the release of this hormone which is very helpful for people with
  • autism,
  • ADHD,
  • stress or anxiety,
  • depression,
  • and even post-traumatic stress disorder.


ASD and other learning disabilities are often characterized by an overactive cerebellum. The cerebellum, found in the back part of the brain, is necessary for motor learning. It’s also the part of the brain that coordinates the different muscle groups to help the body move. An overactive cerebellum is usually the culprit for incessant fidgeting and even hyperactivity. Regular exercise eases the effects of an overactive cerebellum and improves motor skills.


A new study also confirms that exercise positively impacts the brain. How? It helps develop the cerebral cortex which is the part of the brain that processes information. It also makes your brain “bigger” by increasing the volume of the hippocampus which is responsible for storing long-term memory.


Combined, exercise helps promote better learning, retention and attention among children and people on the spectrum.


It’s almost a wrap!

…but there’s more.


Autism exercise has more benefits that go beyond the physical aspect of the body. It also helps the mind especially in these areas:

  • better processing of information
  • enhanced learning, memory and retention
  • reduced anxiety and panic attacks
  • improved mood

…which all leads to better behavior.

Do you or your loved one need autism exercise? Try our 7-day gym pass for FREE at Special Strong and start your fitness goals with trainers who are certified for people with special needs.


Exercise for autism spectrum disorder

If you’re thinking of exercising with your loved one, here are a few exercise routines you can try as a start:


1. Bear crawls

The Bear Crawl is a versatile exercise that provides various health benefits. It mainly aids in building the strength of your body while also refining your body’s awareness and coordination. This total-body exercise targets various muscle groups including the chest, shoulders, triceps, quads, and core, resulting in improved strength and stability.

To perform this exercise, firstly position yourself on all fours – commonly known as a quadruped position. This involves kneeling on your hands and knees. Then, gradually extend your legs until they are slightly bent, with just your hands and feet touching the ground. In the initial stage, walk slowly using your hands and feet, while maintaining a stable and well-coordinated movement pattern.

As you get more comfortable with this, you can increase the intensity and complexity by moving backwards. Reverse Bear Crawls not only challenge your coordination, but also enhance your spatial awareness.

For added progression, consider playing around with your crawling speed and direction if your strength and balance permit. This will not only further challenge your body, but it will make the workout more engaging and fun, cultivating agility and flexibility.

By integrating Bear Crawls in your regular workout regimen, you can foster a stronger and more well-coordinated physique while simultaneously enhancing your body’s awareness. Take note

2. Ball slams

This exercise will help improve your body’s coordination, balance and core strength. It also stimulates brain responses as you do this exercise.

Do this: Stand upright and hold a medicine ball with your both hands. Raise the ball over your head by straightening up your arms as high as you can go. Slam the ball down and bend at your knees to pick it up. Repeat this exercises for at least 20 times without stopping. If you find this tiring, lessen the frequency.


3. Jumping exercises

Compared to other types of exercise, jumping activities are a good start for children and people with autism. Jumping makes use of your whole body. It strengthens your core and your legs. It increases body coordination and awareness and improves cardiovascular endurance.

Do this: Start by taking a squat position with your knees bent. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor. Jump as high as you can then land back on your feet.

Do a varition of this exercise by either extending your arms and legs into a wide X. You can also do jumping jacks if you want. Do this for as much as 20 repetitions or more if you still can. However, lessen the frequency if you feel much tired from the exercise.

Exercise plays a crucial role in positively impacting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Regular physical activity has been shown to contribute to improved behavioral outcomes and overall well-being for individuals on the spectrum. Exercise helps in reducing stress and anxiety, common challenges for those with ASD, by promoting the release of endorphins, the body’s natural mood enhancers. Additionally, structured and adapted exercise routines can enhance sensory processing, aiding individuals in managing sensory sensitivities often associated with autism. The routine and predictability of exercise can provide a sense of structure, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals with ASD, fostering a more stable and balanced environment. Overall, the impact of exercise on those with Autism Spectrum Disorder extends beyond physical health, positively influencing emotional and cognitive aspects of their well-being.

Want more exercises like this? Check out our post on these workout routines to diminish behavior problems with your child.

Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.