The Family Factor of Five: Making Time for Fitness (and Actually Doing It)
The first half of my career was spent trying to convince people in the autism world that fitness is important for this population. With increased attention towards healthy living, there seems to have been a positive shift. Most of the families with whom I work are in a perpetual state of “wanting to get active” and “knowing that they should start” a home program. I have this issue with the idea of awareness. Sure, you know that fitness is something that you and your family should be engaging in, but all those factors that creep in through the days have rendered that awareness fairly useless unless it is enacted upon. So let’s start with Five Factors for starting home-based fitness programs.
1) Start Underwhelmingly.
I want you to begin with one rep of one activity/exercise but do it consistently every day as a family. It could be a ball toss, a short hop, a jumping jack, any non-sedentary, quasi-exercise movement will do. This is less about physical fitness than developing some structure and making time for something new. Involve the whole family for “jump time.” You’re all going to jump up. Once. Even if it is a mere approximation of a jump, as many individuals with ASD and related special needs may not yet have that skill. No matter, a jump-esque movement will do.
2) Keep fun stuff around.
I’ve written often about my go-to equipment. Dynamax medicine balls, Hyperwear Sandbells, spot markers, and cones. The majority of my Autism Fitness programming is done with these essentials and a few other items depending on the amount of space available. Compared to most fitness and specialty equipment, those on my list are inexpensive, don’t take up much room at all, durable, and, most importantly, can be used by individuals at any ability level. They can be used for all the fundamental movements and added to progression activities once the basics are mastered.
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3) Frame it right.
Language is remarkably effective for turning kids and teens on or off to an activity. Yes you want everyone to participate and no, exercising and movement may not be everyone’s favorite thing to do at first, however using the “have to” series of words is a great way to get young people to really not want to participate. There’s an inverse relationship between “have to” and enjoyment. It’s why one of the rules in Autism Fitness is “you can’t force fun.” Provide a positive environment for family fitness time, even when resistance occurs. You’re going to be starting out slowly to begin with anyhow as discussed in point # 1. I tend to replace “You have to” with “Let’s try…” Let’s try is far more suggestive than authoritarian, more of a nudge that a push.
4) Consistency Overrules Fear.
I’ve become convinced that part of the “busy schedule” mentality is an apprehension about exercise. Much of what I do in my consulting work is a process of exercise de-mystification. “No, the treadmill is not the best option for losing weight,” “No, exercise machines are probably not a good basis for a home or adaptive PE program,” “There’s no magical mind-body thing happening in yoga class,” “Running laps is not going to build strength,” “Sit ups and crunches are a terrible idea here.” Yep, those are at least bi-weekly conversations. The nifty thing is that when we get into more appreciable, appropriate fitness, the options for “what to do” become more adaptive and more fun. Using the rule of Putting Movements First and focusing on squatting, crawling, pushing, pulling, and carrying leads us to choose activities that are not only more dynamic, but can be performed at any age, ability level, and in the vast majority of environments including a small living room. So knowing what to do can alleviate the clutter of mixed messages from the fitness industry, gym ads, magazines, and the multi-billion-dollar machine that is the youth sports industry.
I don’t pretend that most of my athletes love fitness the first (second, third…) time we do a session together, quite the opposite. Much of Autism Fitness education is about positive behavior support and pairing exercise with other reinforcing activities so that eventually it becomes something enjoyable. Think of play as the independent seeking of physical activity. If we set up a bunch of brightly colored cones, spot markers, and throw a few bouncy balls on the ground, what can we invent? How can we satisfy that list of basic movements? What two or three activities can we link together to make a game? Play offers challenge without competition, something to consider when working with special needs populations. Find a way to incorporate an activity, song, or experience that is already well-liked and build the fitness program for the day around that. The relationship between consistency and play is the more consistent the exercise activities, the sooner they will be mastered, and the sooner mastered (can be performed independently), the more they may be used in random, play situations.
There’s your five. Nothing extraordinary, no life hacks; just good preparation based on experience. You may find that family fitness time becomes something to look forward to, something that relieves stress and, imagine, leads new people to enjoy exercise because it is exercise done intelligently and playfully. I’m proud that I no longer have to justify why fitness is important for the ASD and special needs population. Now the goal is accessibility.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An exercise physiologist with an extensive ABA background, Eric consults with families, educators, and fitness professionals around the world. Eric works with his athletes in the NY metro area and is the author of several E-books. Visit AutismFitness.com for more information.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2015 Magazine