Everyone, including individuals with autism or other disabilities, should exercise to maintain their health and wellness. Exercise not only assists with weight maintenance, it also provides relaxation, reduces anxiety, improves cardiovascular condition, strength and flexibility, and sleep.
There are three factors to consider to increase the full benefits of exercise and promote health and wellness from any exercise program:
- Frequency — at least 3 times a week
- Duration — for 30 minutes of sustained activity
- Intensity — to get the heart pumping and increase rate
When beginning any exercise program it is important to remember that the feeling or experience of exertion may be distressing. Therefore, a gradual introduction to the exercise program would be helpful. One way this can be accomplished is to use heart rate monitors which are now generally available to the public. Heart rate monitors typically emit an auditory signal when the heart rate is above or below the exercise range. Most heart rate monitors also provide a visual display of the heart rate. This may be sufficient information for some people to see that they are exercising at a specific level.
Exercising the larger muscles of the body tends to result in greater reduction of anxiety. Therefore activities which include movements using the larger muscle groups such as the leg and torso muscles, are important. Some exercise activities that include the use of these muscles are:
- jumping on a trampoline
- jumping rope
- using exercise machines (e.g., treadmill, weight, stair stepper, rowing, stationary bikes, and cross country ski)
- playing structured games like soccer or basketball
- attending classes (e.g., aerobics, aquaerobics, and exercise/ jazzercise)
- engaging in videotape exercise routines
We All Need Support!
It is vital that any exercise experience be a positive one. The key component of enjoyment for any of us, including individuals across the autism spectrum, is an interest in the activity and the ability to be successful! Learning about the activity so that individuals become familiar with what to do and how to do it is essential. Below are ideas to consider to when designing an exercise program.
* Know and understand individual preferences and interests in the area of movement and exercise in order to begin any exercise program. If it is not interesting or fun, it may be meaningless.
- Facilitators should know and understand each individual, the chosen activity, equipment needed, and how to make appropriate adaptations or modifications for a successful experience.
- Set routines for engaging in the activity (e.g., walking the same route, following someone on a bicycle, following the route marked on the road, counting laps by moving bands from one wist to the other, using a clicking counter, picking up a nickel each lap).
- Use visual timers to indicate length of time to participate in the activity, or set limits by using the length of a song or by counting repetitions.
- Sequence charts, flip cards, and checklists can be used to provide the individual with information about what to do now and what to do next.
- Identify an exercise "buddy" to do the activity with. Doing an activity with someone else helps each of us stay involved.
Motivation and Reinforcement
People with autism spectrum disorders may not understand the abstract nature of participating in routine vigorous physical activity as a means of improving health. Many of us understand that idea, but still have a difficult time motivating to exercise. Therefore, it may be necessary to incorporate various motivation and reinforcement techniques into plans for exercise. Some ideas to consider include:
- Matching the exercise to individual interests, preferences, or strengths;
- Pairing the exercise with something else that is motivating or reinforcing for the individual (e.g., time with a particular person, music, different types of movement, various sensory aspects of activity such as water and swimming);
- Following or embedding rewards into the activity (e.g., get a juice after exercising, going someplace special after exercising); and
- Valuing and accepting the idea that participation in the activity need not be perfect. Remember that engaging in activity for better health is the goal.
Davis, K. (1999). We all need exercise. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Resource Center for Autism.