High-intensity interval training in children and adolescents with special educational needs: a systematic review and narrative synthesis

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2023 Feb 9;20(1):13. doi: 10.1186/s12966-023-01421-5.


Background: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been promoted as a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve health and fitness in children and adolescents. However, there remains little consensus in the literature regarding its efficacy in children and adolescents with special educational needs (SEN). This study aimed to examine HIIT as a means of improving key health and fitness parameters in children and adolescents with SEN.

Methods: A systematic search was conducted on eight databases (MEDLINE, Embase, SPORTDiscus, Web of Science, Scopus, PsycINFO, CINAHL, and Cochrane Library). Studies were eligible if they 1) included an HIIT protocol, 2) examined parameters related to both physical and mental aspects of health and fitness, and 3) examined children and adolescents with SEN aged 5-17 years.

Results: Of the 1727 studies yielded by the database search, 13 (453 participants) were included and reviewed. We found that HIIT generally improved body composition, physical fitness, and cardiometabolic risk biomarkers across a spectrum of SEN (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, developmental coordination disorder, and mental illness). Improvements in mental health and cognitive performance following HIIT have also been observed.

Conclusion: This review provides up-to-date evidence for HIIT as a viable exercise strategy for children and adolescents with SEN. Further research investigating the benefits of HIIT in a wider range of SEN populations is warranted.

Trial registration: This study was registered in the International Prospective Register of Systematic Review (PROSPERO; registration number CRD42022352696).

Keywords: Disabilities; HIIT; Interval exercise; Public health; Young people.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Body Composition
  • Child
  • Exercise
  • High-Intensity Interval Training* / methods
  • High-Intensity Interval Training* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Physical Fitness