Benefits & Tips for Physical Activity for Those on the Autism Spectrum

Why is activity important for those on the autism spectrum?

Individuals with autism have a higher incidence of chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease. While the reasons for these conditions are complex, contributing factors include medications, sedentary lifestyle, and dietary challenges.  Individuals on the spectrum also often have co-existing mental health conditions, sleep disorders, and sensory disorders as well. We know that being fit helps improve health in numerous ways including reduced cholesterol, improved blood sugars, strengthened heart, and lungs (to name a few).  But did you know that physical activity may also mitigate symptoms of some conditions and improve the quality of life too? 

What are some things physical activity may do?

  • Improve sleep, feeding, and digestion
  • Bost motor skills 
  • Improve social and communication skills
  • Improve mood/behaviors 
  • Reduce stress
  • Provide chronic disease prevention by improving blood sugars, improving cholesterol levels, and maintaining a healthy weight

What are the current recommendations for physical activity?

Most health organizations recommend 60 minutes of activity each day (at least!) for children and 30 minutes most days for adults. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t have to be all at once. Activity can be done in 5-10 minute increments. In fact, frequent bouts of activity throughout the day (adding up to an hour) may provide benefits for focus, behavior management, and even appetite.

What type of activity counts? 

It doesn’t need to be super intense, Olympic-level effort, it just needs to get the individual moving, moderately.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so think in baby steps. Keep the level of skill in mind for the individual and adapt to where they are at. Gradually increase the intensity, time, or level of skill to help them advance. For example, you may want to start with gentle walking for 10-15 minutes, gradually adding time or increasing to more brisk walking. 

Here are some fun ideas that are easy to adapt and timeless:

  • Rolling skating/rollerblading around the neighborhood, at the park, or at the local rink (don’t forget the helmet).
  • Hiking/walking at local preserves, parks, the mall, the zoo, and more!
  • Playground games like hopscotch, jumping rope, tetherball, catch, or basketball.
  • Gardening-include watering, raking, and *planting fresh fruits/veggies (this will help with food acceptance too!). *Click here for an assortment of fruit/veggie seeds!
  • Biking around the neighborhood-if coordination is a concern; consider a tandem bike! 
  • Try Pokemon-Go or other technology-based apps
  • For an indoor activity, think of streaming exercise videos or websites like for a fun dance party!

For more organized sporting, check out your local parks and recreation organizations to see if they have adaptive programs! While inclusion is important, these programs are a great option. They are more likely to take the time to help your athlete play at their level and provide a more accepting environment.  This may help them feel more comfortable, and foster opportunities for socialization, communication, and friendship. This gives them ways to build skills in a fun way!

Keep in mind

When teaching your individual a new skill or activity, it’s important to include visual supports such as a video beforehand, modeling the skill or even PEC (picture exchange cards). Working with an OT or PT to get ideas as well! Be positive and encouraging, praising progress (perfection is not needed).

Physical activity is such an important factor in health and wellness! It really does help improve so much from keeping our bones and muscles strong to keep our mind healthy.  Don’t be discouraged if at first, it is difficult to motivate your loved one.  The key is consistency and finding something they enjoy. In time they will look forward to it, and may even be the one dragging you to the door! 


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