Autism and Down’s Syndrome Improved with Exercise

Much has been made of late of the power of exercise to increase cognitive ability. Researchers proved this again by increasing cognitive ability in patients with autism, Down’s, and Prader-Willi.

Today’s study starts with a story from my childhood. My grandmother was an educator, and during the summer she tutored a man named Joe. Joe was about twenty years old, but he had a disability that left him with a mind much closer to that of someone my age at the time, around eight years old. I spent much time with Joe. His two favorite interests were ladybugs and tractors. We used the 1984 Encyclopedia Britannica to learn everything we could about them. Ever since spending time with Joe, I’ve had a big heart for people with intellectual disabilities. And today’s study may show us how to help them develop a better quality of life with more independence.

Much discussion has been made of late on the use of exercise to improve cognitive ability. Researchers in this new study wanted to determine if even a moderate exercise program could elicit cognitive improvements in people with intellectual disabilities. Sixteen young adult volunteers participated in the study. Participants had Down’s Syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, or autism spectrum disorders. They participated in an 8-week exercise program that trained them three days per week using a 20-minute circuit. The intent was to keep the participants’ heart rates at about 60-70% of maximum to keep the activity moderate. Both before and after the exercise program, participants were tested on cognitive abilities with an emphasis on focusing and making decisions quickly.

The results: incredible improvement across the board. The average participant performed twice as well across all the cognitive tests after the 8-week exercise program. Some participants showed even more dramatic improvements. It’s difficult to overstate how much this group hit a grand slam on the cognitive tests after the exercise program.

The authors think the program was so effective precisely because it was a moderate-intensity program. Moderate-intensity programs have much better retention than high-intensity programs. Indeed, all participants completed this program with one hundred percent adherence. Furthermore, the participants loved the program, especially the group training atmosphere. Many of them reported that it was their favorite part of the day.

Living with a challenge like Down’s Syndrome or severe autism must be incredibly difficult. These men and women may be able to improve their lives with just a moderate dose of exercise. If you know someone that could benefit from the results of this study, then help them get introduced to exercise. Don’t throw them into something at high intensity, but slowly introduce them to exercise that is fun and sustainable. They may be forever changed.


1. Pastula, Robert, et. al. Effect of Moderate-Intensity Exercise Training on the Cognitive Function of Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26:12, 3441-3448, Dec 2012.

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