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.
Scopus Subject Areas
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- cognitive function
- executive function
- physical exercise