The Power of Exercise: A Transformative Tool for Individuals with Autism 

Exercise can be a life-changing intervention for children and adults with autism. It can offer profound benefits beyond mere physical health. David S. Geslak, an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist, and Benjamin D. Boudreaux, a Kinesiology Ph.D. student at Univ. of Georgia are advocating for greater awareness and education about the transformative impact of exercise within the fitness industry. 

Understanding autism and exercise 

Teaching exercise to individuals with autism necessitates a comprehensive understanding of both autism itself and effective exercise programming. Geslak and Boudreaux1 emphasize the need for tailored approaches, stating, “Teaching exercise to those with autism is 75% understanding autism and 25% understanding exercise.” This nuanced understanding involves embedding evidence-based teaching practices, structured routines, and individualized goals. By addressing the unique learning styles and needs of individuals with autism, fitness professionals can create successful exercise programs that promote engagement and progress. 

Recognizing the opportunity 

Despite the significant benefits that exercise can offer individuals with autism, many fitness professionals remain unfamiliar or uncomfortable working with this population. Geslak and Boudreaux highlight the untapped potential within the fitness industry, noting that “the fitness industry has a tremendous opportunity to help this community improve, succeed, and ultimately become productive members of society.” By equipping fitness professionals with the necessary knowledge and training, the industry can play a pivotal role in supporting the holistic well-being of individuals with autism. 

Challenges in physical education 

Geslak and Boudreaux draw attention to the challenges faced by individuals with autism in accessing appropriate physical education services. Despite legislative support, many individuals with autism don’t receive adequate physical education instruction, contributing to disparities in health outcomes. This disparity is compounded by factors such as limited teacher preparation and budget constraints. By addressing these challenges and ensuring equitable access to quality physical education programs, educators can better support the physical and behavioral health of individuals with autism. 

The role of exercise in reducing behaviors 

Research underscores the significant impact of exercise in reducing stereotypical behaviors and promoting positive outcomes for individuals with autism. Geslak and Boudreaux cite studies2 demonstrating that exercise can improve focus, behavior, language development, and overall well-being in this population. By incorporating exercise into daily routines, individuals with autism can experience tangible benefits that extend beyond the gymnasium. 

Personal testimonies 

Personal testimonies from Geslak and Boudreaux highlight the transformative power of exercise in their own lives. Boudreaux shares his journey of overcoming challenges and finding empowerment through exercise, stating, “Exercise had gone from being one of my childhood nightmares to being an invaluable tool that would help me achieve my dreams.” Geslak reflects on his experiences working with individuals with autism, emphasizing the profound impact of progress and achievement. 

Educational initiatives 

Recognizing the need for specialized training, Geslak and Boudreaux highlight educational initiatives such as the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate offered by ACSM.3 This certification program equips fitness professionals with the knowledge and skills to effectively support individuals with autism in their fitness journey. By investing in education and training, the fitness industry can bridge the gap and ensure that individuals with autism have access to quality exercise programming. 

Empowering through exercise 

The takeaway from Geslak’s and Boudreaux’s advocacy is a call for a paradigm shift in how exercise is perceived and utilized within the autism community. They emphasize the potential for exercise to empower children and adults with autism, promote inclusion, and improve overall quality of life. By embracing evidence-based practices and fostering greater awareness and education, the fitness industry can become a catalyst for positive change for individuals with autism. As Geslak and Boudreaux state, “It’s not about disability; it’s about possibility.” 

1 Geslak, David S. B.S., ACSM-CEP, CSCS; Boudreaux, Benjamin D. M.S. “Exercise is a Life-Changer for Those with Autism.” The American College of Sports Medicine’s ACSM Health & Fitness Journal 25(3):p 12-19, 5/6 2021. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000668. 

2 Sowa M, Meulenbroek R. Effects of physical exercise on autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis. Res Autism Spectr Disord. 2012;6(1):46–57. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2011.09.001. 

3 The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) certificate program.

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