By: Eric Chessen, Director of Neuroadaptive Programming, Inclusive Fitness

A recent study, this one from Oregon State University, has quantified what many parents and advocates likely experience: that physical activity for those with ASD sharply declines between ages 9-13. The following quote from one of the study’s authors is particularly concerning;

It’s not news that kids with autism have lower physical activity levels than their peers without disability, but how that progresses over time is really new.”

It’s important to consider that the existence of this area of research is starting to point to a greater trend; a concern for the health and well-being of the neurodiverse population. That research institutions are now interested in physical activity demonstrates an increase in both general awareness and, eventually, evidenced-based strategies.

The problem here is clear, but the causes are multiple.

We have three primary barriers to fitness for the neuroadaptive population. The first is prioritization, making fitness a part of the daily routine. If we add in 5-10 minutes of movement throughout the day, it begins to add up. This can also familiarize our emerging athlete with new exercises. These “movement break” opportunities can alleviate stress and provide a positive outlet for energy built up after sitting for long periods. Prioritizing fitness paves the road to making it a “lifestyle,” a collection of habits that can have profound benefits in the short- and long-term.

The second issue is accessibility, certainly a defining reason for Inclusive Fitness to exist. Accessibility means not just having any fitness program or group of exercises, but a program that meets the physical needs of each participant. Fortunately, some of the most beneficial exercises are also the simplest with respect to space and equipment. Medicine ball throws, hurdle steps, squats, presses, band pulls, and carrying heavy objects can be really beneficial when performed at each athlete’s current level of ability.

The third issue is initiative and motivation. Neuroadaptive athletes may lack the ability and opportunities to either self-advocate or engage in physical activities that are appealing. Of equal importance is that many of the athletes we serve require a longer introductory period with exercise to feel familiar, comfortable, and capable.  This is a two-pronged issue, as the environment and programming must be appropriate, focusing on general physical skills as opposed to sport- or activity-specific movements.

In the Inclusive Fitness® model based on the PAC Profile® Method, we prioritize fitness as a life skill that will have significant, measurable, identifiable outcomes for each participant. Fitness as a life skill means that there is time, space, and effort dedicated to satisfying that area of development for the individual long-term.

Equally as important to prioritizing fitness as a life skill, we use  specific and reputable programming practices as the foundation of our fitness curricula. Rather than a “figure out what fitness means to you” approach, which tends to yield vague, non-progressive suggestions, the fundamental tenants of effective exercise programming include:

  • Strengthening exercises that work the primary movement patterns, including pushing, pulling, squatting, locomotion/gait, carrying, and motor sequencing
  • Stability and stamina-building exercises that promote healthy gait and postural function
  • Progressive training that increases in challenge (specific to each exercise and intended result) over time
  • The inclusion of sport- or activity-specific pursuits not instead of but, situationally, in addition to foundational programming
  • A long-term developmental approach to fitness that starts at an early age and accounts for skills needed at each stage of life.

The need for physical activity for neurodivergent teens and adults is not necessarily a new concept. However, we need to see a dramatic change for most of the population if we are to avoid myriad serious but preventable physical issues down the line. The time we have now can be spent discussing the problem or spent developing and implementing real, tangible changes based on not only what we know, but on what we know we can do about it.

So here’s the starter kit;

  • Find 5-10 minutes each day that can be dedicated to fitness
  • Have a safe, clean, distraction-free environment
  • *Start with just a few exercises at appropriate progression or regression levels
  • Give choices around which exercises to do and in what order
  • Repeat (i.e., be consistent)

Let’s aim for a future where we are not reviewing research about a lack of fitness, but comparing the effects of different exercises, programs, and practices.


*Specific exercises, exercise programming, and progressions/regressions is a series of articles on their own. We’ll continue to highlight some of our favorites on this blog and on our social media.