Fitness on the Spectrum – Beginning to Understand Sensory Movement

Cognitive Benefits of Movement

Accessible fitness and wellness modalities come in an array of methods that work for different clients. Coaches should constantly be equipping themselves with the knowledge to support a wide range of diverse individuals in order to ensure they are being as open as possible to support their community with their classes and training. Supporting a wide range of individuals also requires coaches to understand that clients can benefit from movement for reasons beyond the aesthetic and even outside of improvements that they can receive relating to chronic health outcomes. 

Movement benefits the body in a multitude of ways, including improving cognitive function and reaction time. Physical exercise can also contribute to releasing dopamine and serotonin, boosting our mood and igniting positive feelings emotionally. Opportunities for movement can also come with a coach’s ability to foster a safe sensory space for their clients so that their degree of comfort is unique to their sensory needs as well. 

What movement does for neurodivergent individuals

As an individual who is on the neurodivergent spectrum, I am aware that my fascination with physical movement was not attached to the physiological changes it provided my body. Instead, I focused more on the dopamine release that came with movement; I became more and more aware of how movement made me happy and put me in the best mood. Walking outside in nature helps me feel euphoric, creating positive sensory responses in my body. I can only speak from personal experience, or draw from those that have been shared with me from those I know in the neurodivergent community. Focusing on fitness on the spectrum focuses on understanding how movement feels to those who identify as being on the spectrum, as well as understanding the benefits of exercise on the body aside from what has been traditionally taught by fitness professionals. 

Movement and fidgeting are forms of stimming for many individuals with neurodivergence and therefore can be done in the form of exercise. Stimming can be described as physical actions with someone’s body such as foot tapping, hand flapping, rocking the body, or finger/limb flicking. Many neurodivergent individuals may self-regulate with stimming movements that also come in the form of physical exercise and general movement of the body in order to process information more productively. 

Movement can be translated as self-soothing, self-regulating, and a mechanism with which a neurodivergent individual can receive positive feedback and response within their bodies. Children and adults on the neurodivergent spectrum can receive positive feedback from external stimuli such as walking, running, exercising, or just moving their bodies physically however it feels best for them.  

What can coaches do?

Coaches can support their clients, neurodivergent or not, by helping them get in tune with their bodies.  The goal is to remove the strict connotations that can come with “physical exercise” and turn physical activity into a method of receiving positive feedback within the body.  Asking questions such as these below can encourage clients to dial into their workouts and gauge interoceptive feelings and how they make them feel:

  • “How does movement feel in your body before and after sessions?”
  • “On a scale of 1-10, what does movement feel like for you?”
  • “How about journaling how your sessions are going each day?”

Coaches can release the tendency to strictly focus on “fitness plans” and organized workouts, and encourage clients to move for the sake of movement alone. Also, understanding how to consider volume in fitness classes and spaces, lighting, and the impact of that on certain individuals, or what may or may not feel comfortable on or within someone’s body are ways that sensory considerations can be taken into account. 

In a future piece, we will dive into more related to how to facilitate sensory-friendly fitness sessions and environments for clients whose needs relate.

  1. “Feel good” hormone could explain why exercise helps boost your brain. (2024, January 24). ScienceDaily.
  2. Kapp, Steven & Steward, Robyn & Crane, Laura & Elliott, Daisy & Elphick, Chris & Pellicano, Elizabeth & Russell, Ginny. (2019). ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming.’People_should_be_allowed_to_do_what_they_like’_Autistic_adults’_views_and_experiences_of_stimming
  3. Ranieri, A., Mennitti, C., Falcone, N., La Monica, I., Di Iorio, M. R., Tripodi, L., Gentile, A., Vitale, M., Pero, R., Pastore, L., D’Argenio, V., Scudiero, O., & Lombardo, B. (2023). Positive effects of physical activity in autism spectrum disorder: how influences behavior, metabolic disorder and gut microbiota. Frontiers in psychiatry.
  4. Stimming: Self-Stimulating Behaviors. (n.d.). Psychology Today.


Katrina is a global educator and Certified Wellness Specialist dedicated to bridging gaps through equitable access and collaborative coaching. With over 20 years of experience, she leads diverse teams, creates support groups, and mentors future leaders. Katrina specializes in Bias Unearthing, Neurodiversity Inclusion, and Intersectional Inclusion. She holds a Master of Science in Exercise Science and Health Promotion, certificates in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell and USF, and an Associate of Science in Graphic Design. Katrina’s mission is to foster unity through self-care and compassion, making healing a path to deeper purpose and inclusivity.

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