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Exercise in ABA - Trumpet Behavioral Health

Exercise in ABA


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Exercise is such a prevalent topic these days. In applied behavioral analysis exercise has become a hot topic as well! Applied Behavior Analysts are working on sport specific goals, health goals, and safe exercise practices. While at Trumpet we are not training any NFL players (yet), however, exercise can be a significant part of our clients sessions.


As mentioned before exercise triggers parts of the brain that make us happy. When working with clients on coping skills and emotional regulation exercise has become part of a larger antecedent and consequent coping skill we teach within sessions. This looks like going for a walk when you feel overstimulated in a room/situation, doing some jumping jacks or air squats when you feel like you cannot sit and attend to an activity, or going for a fast walk before you know you need to be seated for a long period of time. These skills are taught using a Behavioral Skills Training model which means, we talk about it, we model it, practice it, then apply it. Using exercise can replace maladaptive behaviors like elopement, aggression and outburst when applied as antecedent behaviors. They can also be used to aid in decreasing de-escalation after outburst or overstimulation.

Self help/adaptive skills

As we work with clients to become more independent and self-sufficient, exercise can become an important part of things like schedule creating, time management and general executive functioning. Making an exercise plan may seem like it should not be part of an ABA session, however, when working with clients who struggle with time management, following multi-step directions and independently creating schedules, creating exercise plans and schedules are appropriate. I have clients who will plan workout routines in the gym with crunches, jumping jacks and even pushups! As always, our fun RBTs not only encourage engagement, but usually engage with them. Creating a fun way to target more complex goals!   

Social Skills

Some of my clients have never played sports aside from adaptive PE at school. Sports are a great place to target social skills such as turn taking, non-verbal communication, and giving/receiving complex directions. As I continue to work with learners on communication skills, giving directions is important not just to adults around them but to their peers. Working through a sport/exercise routine is a great way to target social skills through increased need for communication and reinforcement of having someone else follow their directions. Building confidence in communication is something I want all of my learners to experience. From what I have seen, exercise and sport routines in session have created these naturalistic opportunities for my clients that they enjoy as well as their siblings, peers, and therapists.

Healthy habits

Respective behaviors are part of the core deficits of autism and sometimes we get stuck in cycles of less healthy behaviors such as binging TV, video games or iPad time. This pandemic is happening everywhere, and we have the opportunity to use our time to target these repetitive behaviors not by simply removing them, but offering replacement activities and behaviors. Exercise has shown to be an item clients usually start  referring to as a less preferred activity, but in the end, enjoy completing it!



As with most of my ABA programs, autonomy needs to be respected when completing these programs. Exercise should never be forced or physically prompted. As with all activities we include in our ABA sessions, the ultimate choice of engaging in and adding exercise into the session is the client. If exercise is being included in session it should be run in accordance with  applied behavior analysis programs and goals such as following multistep directions, engaging in less preferred activities, coping skill practice, time management etc. Focusing on specific motor movement or anatomical exercises are not within our realm of competence and should be addressed by providers like occupational and physical therapists.

Written by Brigitta Martins

My name is Brigitta and I am a BCBA at Trumpet San Diego. I became passionate about ABA while I was a college student completing my psychology degree internship at an ABA company. Some of my favorite parts of ABA...

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