5 Ways to Promote Exercise in Children with Autism

Written by: Madelyn Debski and Donna Wolcott, PT

Exercise is the basis of a healthy lifestyle for children as it increases bone strength, maintains a healthy metabolism, and aids cardiovascular fitness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents should have at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. However, studies show that children with an autism diagnosis get less exercise than a typical developing child. This may be due to the child’s physical limitations, lack of interest, or social, behavioral, and communication problems. Though it can be more challenging to introduce exercise to a child with autism, the benefits reach beyond just physical health improvements, establishing a healthier and happier lifestyle for a child with autism.  


  • Motor Skills: jumping, running and throwing
  • Behavior: reduction of impulsive actions
  • Physical Health: maintaining healthy weight
  • Sleep: increased sleep quantity and quality
  • Balance and Coordination: increased control of body movements
  • Mental Stability: boost mood, alertness and concentration


  1. Add Exercise to Daily Routine
    • It is important to start with small goals to ensure the exercise is integrated into a child’s daily routine. Exercise is supposed to be fun and natural for children. A few ways to introduce exercise include going on afternoon walks, ball play, and having dance breaks during television commercials. Any additional movement added to a child’s life is beneficial.
  2. Local Parks
    • Gainesville is home to parks all over each part of the city. Local parks are a great way to get children to exercise and explore the outdoors, which is valuable for a child’s sensory exposure and development. Each park contains different equipment and safety features. Some examples are fences with gates and adaptive swings to allow all children to participate. Below are some examples of Gainesville Parks:
      • Depot Park (SE Gainesville) – Wheelchair accessible, complete fence with gate, swings, steps, and a paved path
      • Veterans Memorial Park (SW Gainesville) – Wheelchair accessible, paved path, steps, and climbing structures
      • Trinity Methodist Church Playground (NW Gainesville) – Wheelchair accessible, complete fence with gate, swings, steps, and climbing obstacles
      • Copeland Park (NE Gainesville) – complete fence with gate, swings, and steps
    • Additional park maps of Gainesville can be found below with respective keys to highlight specific park features.
  3. Core Exercises
    • Core strength is essential for performing everyday tasks. Core strength depends on the muscles surrounding the abdominal region, back, and pelvis. Children with autism typically have weak trunk muscles, as seen through body positioning such as W sitting, which allows a child to avoid balancing using their core. To engage a child’s core muscles, change their positioning to sitting criss cross, kneeling tall on their knees or playing on their stomach. Specific core exercises include bear crawls, downward dog pose, or even sit-ups.
  4. Jumping
    • Jumping is a great movement to introduce to a child when starting exercise due to its use of the whole body. Whether jumping on the ground or on a trampoline, jumping requires the use of the core, legs, and arms, making it a beneficial strengthening exercise. The movement also provides a soothing or stimulating sensory input that a child may seek. To start jumping, encourage the child to bend their knees with their heels on the ground before jumping and on landing for optimal muscle and joint development. Jumping can help improve balance, coordination, and strength while overall improving motor planning.  
  5. Community Organized Activities
    • Gainesville has many organizations that offer adapted sports programs specifically for children with autism or other intellectual or developmental disabilities. These activities allow children to receive vital physical fitness while aiding their social and communication abilities. Some local Gainesville, FL organizations include:

Parks of Gainesville

While occupational therapy and speech therapy are often recommended for children with autism, recent research is showing that a significant number of children with autism have motor impairments as well. Physical therapy can address these motor impairments by helping your child develop safety awareness during gross motor skills and improve their strength, balance, and coordination for participation in activities such as ball play, jumping, and bike riding. These skills can enhance their confidence and ability to participate and enjoy physical activity to improve their overall health throughout their life.