Make Fitness Fun for Kids with Special Needs

November 22nd, 2016

American Medical Association Research Symposium in Orlando, Florida. Studies have shown that exercise reduces problem behaviors such as the need for repetition, disruptiveness, aggression and self-injury in people with autism and ADHD.  And, these benefits can last for several hours during and after exercise. According to Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. in his paper, “Physical Exercise and Autism,” for the Autism Institute, “One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise. Vigorous exercise means a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout, 3 to 4 days a week; mild exercise has little effect on behavior. Many autistic children gain weight if they have an inactive lifestyle, and weight gain brings another set of problems.” Motivating children can be difficult.  Motivating a child with special needs to exercise can really be a challenge.  Here are a few tips to help your children with autism and ADHD become excited to participate in a fitness program and improve kids’ health.

  • Create progress sheets/displays.  Everyone likes to see improvement.  Create a visual representation that shows where your child began (ie – 3 sit-ups), where you child is now (5 sit-ups) and displays your child’s goal (10 sit-ups).
  • Does your child have a specific interest?  Shape the exercise routine to fit your child’s hobbies.  For example, if your child enjoys comic books, create an obstacle course based on a scenario from Marvel’s The Avengers using old sheets, lawn chairs, boxes or even sofa cushions and mattresses.  Pretend Loki has returned to Earth.  Your child should choose his/her favorite Avenger and use that character’s power to conquer the maze and save the planet.
  • Make fitness fun by exergaming!  Does your child like video games, but dislikes “exercising”?  Combine the two for a great workout! Exergaming combines cutting-edge technology with exercise.
    • A study written by UTMB’s Claudia Hilton, associate professor, Tim Reistetter, associate professor and Diane Collins, assistant professor, all from the UTMB occupational therapy and rehabilitation sciences departments, concludes, “Findings suggest the use of exergaming, more specifically the Makoto Arena, has the potential to serve as a valuable addition to therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders who have motor and executive function impairments.”
    • Through the use of exergaming – especially the Makoto Arena – researchers showed improvement in response speed, executive function and motor skills among children with autism. Researchers believe the exertion of participating in this type of game helps to improve the neural connections in the brains of these children.
    • I have seen these positive results firsthand in the gym I founded more than 25 years ago – Fitness for Health. My fitness trainers and I work with the special needs community using the Makoto Arena and other exergaming equipment to track results as they happen, so kids can gain the confidence that comes from seeing his or her performance improve over time.
  • Include the whole family.  Everyone can benefit from additional exercise so become a role model for your kids by helping them try new activities.  Show them that fitness for kids can be exciting and can be easily incorporated into daily life.  Make fitness fun and teach your kids the importance of a healthy, active lifestyle from a young age.  The younger a child is when this lesson is learned, the more opportunity for a healthy adulthood.
  • Reward difficult exercises with 10 minutes of a fun activity your child selects.  I’ve found that the children I train in my therapeutic fitness center for people with special needs, Fitness for Health, try their best to complete difficult tasks in order to have the freedom to choose their own ending activity.  This helps build self-esteem and empowers the child to make decisions about his/her fitness routine.

One of the most important points to consider is how to motivate your child to exercise of his/her own will. Asking your child to continually perform exercises just for a small reward will not last long, but helping your child to find enjoyment in exercise will promote lifelong fitness. This isn’t revolutionary, this is ABA applied to exercise. About Fitness for Health: Recognized as Washington Family Magazine’s 2016 Best Special Needs Program and Best Special Needs Camp in the DC Area and a finalist for’s Readers’ Choice Award for Best Special Needs Resource in the D.C. Region, Fitness for Health, founded by Marc Sickel who also suffers from ADD, specializes in creating personalized, therapeutic programs for children with a broad range of special needs:

  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Gross motor delays
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Pervasive developmental disorders
  • Down Syndrome
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Developmental and physical disabilities
  • Confidence and self-esteem issues
  • Emotional disturbances and anxiety disorders

At Fitness for Health, you get a complete team—including pediatric fitness specialists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists—working together to create a full-service plan of care that’s expertly tailored to your child’s developmental, skill and comfort levels while providing fitness for kids using cutting-edge, exergaming technology. As a parent, you’re involved every step of the way.  Learn more about our therapeutic exercise, occupational therapy services, and physical therapy services today.]]>

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