Does Participation in a Peer-Mentored Physical Activity Program Increase Health-Related Fitness in College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Objectives: The purpose of this study was to examine: 1) the effects of a PA intervention on the health-related fitness (i.e., cardiorespiratory fitness, upper body muscular endurance, core abdominal muscular strength, flexibility) of college students with ASD, and 2) participant experience as a result of their participation in the fitness intervention.
Methods: IFiT (Into Fitness Together) is a 10-week peer-mentored individualized PA intervention designed to increase health-related fitness among college students with ASD. Data were collected during the Fall and Spring college semesters (2015-2017). A total of 34 college students with ASD (31 male, 3 female) between 18-29 years of age participated in the study. Participants were paired 1:1 with Kinesiology students (called Peer Mentors) and became dyads. Dyads met twice a week to engage in self-selected PA for a minimum of 120 minutes. At pre- and post-intervention we collected: anthropometric measures (height, weight, and waist circumference), fitness levels measured by cardiorespiratory endurance (VO2 max), muscular endurance (sit-ups and push-ups), and flexibility (sit-and-reach). A subset of qualitative data from the larger dataset were analyzed. InVivo coding was used to generate themes from participant interviews about the IFiT experience.
Results: Twenty-six of 34 participants had Body Mass Index levels in the overweight to obese range. VO2 max significantly increased from pre- (M = 37.49) to post-intervention (M = 42.50). Sit-and-reach scores significantly increased from pre- (M = 21.83cm) to post-intervention (M = 28.38cm). Upper body muscular endurance measured by total push-ups completed in one minute significantly increased from pre- (M = 10.29) to post-intervention (M = 13.32). There were no significant differences for core abdominal muscular strength, p > .05. Three main themes emerged from participant interviews including their perceived: 1) gains in motor competence and knowledge of exercise, 2) improved overall health, and 3) sense of belonging. Participants expressed feeling “healthy and fit” and physically strong, and reported improved sleep, energy, and gastrointestinal health. Participants reported enjoying time socializing with other students with ASD and valued socializing with their Peer Mentors.
Conclusions: Regular participation in a 10-week physical activity program was beneficial to the physical health of college students with ASD. Our findings indicate that Peer Mentors offer invaluable support in helping young adults with ASD enhance their health-related fitness and social engagement.