Benefits and Considerations of Exercise Programs
By Mason Dixon

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Down Syndrome (DS) face more health risks than the average population.

Adults diagnosed with ASD have substantially higher rates of mental health problems such depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder due to social and communication difficulties and physical ailments such as high cholesterol and diabetes.

As these individuals age, risk factors continue to elevate this populations’ potential to contract more serious diseases such as heart disease and death.

Physical Activity Benefits

Proper exercise and physical activity can help control health risks. George Harnick, Michigan State University’s kinesiology program instructor, stated the “benefits can be much larger with people who have disabilities.” Harnick said, “I see individuals with special needs drop weight via physical activity, which in turn can increase coordination and lead to other increased capabilities and confidence.”

Harnick’s teaches a class that pairs kinesiology students (coaches) coach with an athlete (individual with a disability from within the community) in a sport of their choice.

Becca Mills, a MSU women basketball player and current coach in the program, said the program helped her to be a better coach. “I know much more about them, and I am much more comfortable.”

Ann Carpenter, an avid exercise advocate, works at the Autism Society of Michigan. Carpenter said exercise has improved her quality of life.

“As a woman with autism in her fifties, I find that if I don’t exercise at least every other day, I feel plain lousy,” she stated.

Physical activity may also increase attention span, lower aggression levels, promote higher self-esteem and increase happiness levels. Exercise can reduce bouts of negative repetitive behaviors and disruptiveness, which is common in individuals with ASD.

Andrea Terry, an athlete with DS in Harnick’s class, has improved from her daily exercise.

“She’s improved socially, communicatively and physically,” said Ken Terry, Andrea’s father.


Parents and coaches need to consider whether to enroll their child or athlete into individual or team sports as some athletes may struggle with high levels of coordination.

Motor Clumsiness, another side effect of ASD, may cause difficulties in some team sports such as basketball or tennis because it requires fine-tuned motor skills to complete many tasks.

Individual sports such as running or swimming, are just as beneficial.

“Team sports are often difficult for kids with ASD, due to motor clumsiness, but individual sports such as swimming, bicycling and hiking can be very beneficial,” Carpenter stated.

In addition to motor clumsiness, many special needs athletes also have sensory issues. These issues can include difficulty seeing, hearing or comprehending a situation in a split second.

Carpenter described how she has fallen, tripped and broken her wrist and ankle in the past because of these restrictions.

“At times I have to move more slowly and deliberately, to avoid falling and hurting myself,” she said.

Despite scary moments, Carpenter credits her exercise as she prepares for life beyond her 50’s. “With exercise, I find that I am getting better with age, just like a good wine or cheese,” she said.


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