Physical Activity Interventions for Children with Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Disabilities—A Systematic Review

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Perform a systematic review of the available literature regarding the effectiveness of exercise interventions on children with any type of social, emotional, or behavioral disability (SEBD), with attention to a range of physiological, behavioral, and mood outcomes.


Six databases were searched using a systematic methodology. References of included studies, as well as relevant reviews, were also examined. The review was limited to studies published since 2000 reporting a quantitative analysis of the effects of a physical activity (PA) intervention on at least 1 behavioral, psychological, or cognitive outcome in children aged 21 and under, diagnosed with a SEBD. Only studies with a control group were included.


We identified 24 eligible studies. Studies varied in design, participant characteristics, and intervention characteristics (single-bout vs repeated exposure, duration, intensity level, mode of exercise). Of the 20 behavioral outcome assessments, there was 1 negative finding, 12 null findings, 5 positive findings, and 2 mixed findings. For the 25 executive functioning outcome assessments, there were 5 null findings, 18 positive findings, and 2 mixed findings. For the remaining outcome domains, 1 of 2 studies looking at academic performance, 3 of 6 studies looking at objective neurological measures, and 1 of 3 studies looking at affect outcomes found positive results. All other results were null or mixed.


Although additional research is warranted to further understand the mechanisms by which PA affects behavioral and cognitive outcome measures in children with SEBDs, PA offers a safe and alternative form of treatment for this population.

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