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Does Research Show That Exercise Helps Kids with Autism & ADHD?

Does Research Show That Exercise Helps Kids with Autism & ADHD?

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Experts at Michigan State University have demonstrated that kids with ADHD have better focus and are less distracted after a 20 minute exercise session. Matthew Pontifex, assistant professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, and lead researcher for the study said:

“This provides some very early evidence that exercise might be a tool in our nonpharmaceutical treatment of ADHD. Maybe our first course of action that we would recommend to developmental psychologists would be to increase children’s physical activity.”

Here is a brief summary of the study as reported in msutoday.msu.edu in October 2012. 

“Pontifex and colleagues asked 40 children aged 8 to 10, half of whom had a diagnosis of ADHD, to spend 20 minutes either walking briskly on a treadmill or reading while seated. The children then took a brief reading comprehension and math exam similar to longer standardized tests. They also played a simple computer game in which they had to ignore visual stimuli to quickly determine which direction a cartoon fish was swimming.

The results showed all of the children performed better on both tests after exercising. In the computer game, those with ADHD also were better able to slow down after making an error to avoid repeat mistakes – a particular challenge for those with the ADHD.

Pontifex said the findings support calls for more physical activity during the school day.”

Additionally, according to an article from the Autism Research Institute, written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.,

“Studies show that vigorous exercise is associated with decreases in stereotypic (self-stimulatory) behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness in individuals with autism. Vigorous exercise means a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout, 3 to 4 days a week; mild exercise has little effect on behavior.”

Related Article: 15 Behavior Strategies for Children with Autism

If you would like to read more about the research check out:
– The effects of aerobic exercise on academic engagement in young children with autism spectrum disorder
– Vigorous, aerobic exercise versus general motor training activities: effects on maladaptive and stereotypic behaviors of adults with both autism and mental retardation (now referred to as Intellectual Disability)
– Effects of a leisure programme on quality of life and stress of individuals with ASD

We also know that exercise leads to improved self-esteem, health, and has been shown to help decrease anxiety and depression. So teaching good exercise habits early can lead to a lifetime of benefits for all children, not just those with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

While some children enjoy and have the opportunity to participate in organized sports, many do not. Additionally, there is not always an opportunity to play organized sports several times a week.

This article gives several exercise ideas to really get your kids/students moving at home, in the community, and at school. Participate in these activities with your kids if you are able, to set a good example, create bonding time, and make memories.

Ideas for In School/At Home:
Try some of these exercises as a break from the normal class routine or while your child is at home, maybe before a homework session. Depending on your child’s age and physical capabilities you will have to decide how long the activities should last. Start with 5 to 20 minute sessions. You can pick one activity or do a few different ones for a few minutes each. If you are only doing a short session, such as five minutes, try to do a few a day.

Stretch to Warm Up

Do Jumping Jacks

Run in Place

exercise ideas for ADHD

Dance to Music

Play “Aerobic Simon Says” (e.g., Simon says do 10 jumping jacks, Simon says touch your toes 10 times in a row, Simon says jump up and down 20 times, etc.)

Do a Dance or Exercise Video

exercise ideas for autism

Bounce on a Ball


In the Community: (Try Some of These Activities to Get Your Child Moving Outside)

Stretch to Warm Up

Fast Walking

Jog or Run

Shoot Hoops


Jump Rope

Play Tag (If your child does not have a friend to play with, play with your child)

Ride a Bike

Kick a Soccer Ball Around

Play Handball

You can even try incorporating exercise into learning. This is a great way to keep active kids motivated. For example, if you are studying with your child for a vocabulary test, tape the words to the wall. When you call out a definition, have your child run to the word and run back to you to hear the next definition. I challenge you to think of a way to incorporate movement into your own learning activity.

Keep in Mind: Since exercise leads to improved learning, focus, behavior, (mental and physical) health, and self-esteem; don’t take recess away as a punishment. For some kids, recess is the only exercise they get. 

Related Articles:
Please Don’t Take Away My Recess-A Poem About ADHD
15 Behavior Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum
14 Strategies to Help Kids with ADHD in the Classroom or At Home
6 Research-Based Interventions for the Treatment of ADHD in Children

Please comment below with any exercises or movement ideas you have! I would love to hear from you!

Exercise is one way to help children improve learning and behavior, but there are many effective strategies that can be used along with exercise.

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Written by Rachel Wise

Rachel Wise

Rachel Wise is the founder and CEO of educationandbehavior.com. She is also a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a master’s degree in education. Rachel has 20 years of experience working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs.




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