The relationships among executive functions, self-regulation, and physical exercise in children with autism spectrum disorder

Andy C. Y. Tse*, Venus H. L. Liu, Paul H. Lee, David I. Anderson, Kimberley Dawn Lakes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Physical exercise is widely reported beneficial to executive functions in children with autism spectrum disorder. However, its impact on self-regulation in the population remains unknown. This study is to test whether two types of physical exercise (cognitively engaging vs non-cognitively engaging) benefited self-regulation and whether the social, emotional, and physical needs of an individual mediated the exercise–executive function and exercise–self-regulation relationships. Sixty-four children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were randomly assigned into 1 of 3 groups: learning to ride a bicycle (n = 23), stationary cycling (n = 19), or an active control with walking (n = 22). Two executive functions (flexibility and inhibition), self-regulation and the mediating roles of perceived social support, enjoyment, stress, physical self-efficacy, and perceived physical fitness were assessed. Participants in the learning to ride a bicycle group significantly improved their executive functions (p values <.01). The learning to ride a bicycle group and the stationary cycling group also significantly enhanced their self-regulation (p values <.001). Mediation analyses showed that physical self-efficacy and perceived physical fitness partially mediated the exercise–executive function relationship. Meanwhile, perceived social support significantly mediated the exercise–self-regulation relationship (p <.05). Our findings highlight the value of cognitively engaging exercise on enhancing executive functions in children with autism spectrum disorder in part by improving their physical self-efficacy and perceptions of fitness. Lay abstract: This study examined the impacts of two types of physical exercises (two-wheel cycling vs stationary cycling) on cognition and self-regulation among 64 children with autism spectrum disorder. It also explored the role of social, emotional, and physical needs of an individual in the relationship between exercise, cognition, and self-regulation. Results showed that participants in the two-wheel cycling group showed significant improvements in their cognition and that the two exercise groups also enhanced their self-regulation. Moreover, this study also revealed that the social need is crucial in mediating the relationship between exercise and self-regulation. This study strengthens the notion that cognitively engaging exercise is more beneficial than the non-cognitively engaging exercise in enhancing cognition in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)327-341
Number of pages15
JournalAutism
Volume28
Issue number2
Early online date10 May 2023
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

User-Defined Keywords

  • autism
  • children
  • cognitive function
  • executive function
  • physical exercise
  • self-regulation

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