The Effects of Exercise Interventions on Executive Functions in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Sports Med. 2022 Jan;52(1):75-88. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01545-3. Epub 2021 Sep 1.


Background: Both chronic and acute exercise interventions have reported positive effects on executive functions (EFs) in general populations. However, data on changes in EFs in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in response to exercise interventions are still unclear.

Objective: This systematic review and meta-analysis aimed to synthesize available empirical studies concerning the effects of exercise interventions on EFs in children and adolescents with ASD.

Methods: In accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-analyses guidelines, the electronic databases CINAHL Complete (via EBSCOhost), SPORTDiscus with Full Text (via EBSCOhost), MEDLINE (via EBSCOhost), Web of Science, ProQuest, and Education Resources Information Center (ERIC; via EBSCOhost) were searched from inception to January 2021. Two authors independently extracted data and conducted a risk-of-bias analysis using the Physiotherapy Evidence Database scale. Randomized controlled trials/quasi-experimental designs that used acute or chronic exercise interventions and assessed EFs through neurocognitive tasks or questionnaires among children and adolescents with ASD were included. In total, 259 articles were identified, of which 15 full texts were independently assessed for eligibility by two authors. In total, 14 articles underwent systematic review, and seven were selected for meta-analysis.

Results: Overall, chronic exercise interventions had a small to moderate positive effect on overall EFs in children and adolescents with ASD (g = 0.342; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.084-0.600; p < 0.01). Regarding domain-specific EFs, chronic exercise interventions had a small to moderate positive effect on cognitive flexibility (g = 0.312; 95% CI 0.053-0.570; p < 0.01) and inhibitory control (g = 0.492; 95% CI 0.188-0.796; p < 0.01). However, our review found a non-significant effect size (g = 0.212; 95% CI - 0.088 to 0.512) on working memory.

Conclusions: Chronic exercise interventions appear to have beneficial effects on overall EFs in children and adolescents with ASD, particularly in relation to cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / therapy
  • Child
  • Executive Function*
  • Exercise
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Humans