Health and Wellness
Health and Wellness
A Red Panda. A Twenty foot tall ball of yarn. Both are specific, if uncommon visuals. Okay now… “Healthy living.” Whatcha got? A cornucopia filled with fruits and vegetables? A hike over the mountains? That redundant meme of someone in a field doing a yoga pose? Is “optimal health” an illusion? Does it look different for everyone? What is the expectation of being “fit,” exactly, in a world where standards are vague and practices differ, particularly for the autism and special needs population?
Everything is Mostly Not an Emergency But Still
Unless we’re talking cardiac arrest or blunt force trauma, most of us are in a state of relative homeostasis with some room for optimization. Your child’s body is not riddled with toxins. Unless they have a rare disorder called metabolic acidosis, their bloodstreams are not overly acidic. There’s no magic pill. Fish oil has benefits but isn’t a cure-all. Juice cleanses are a waste of your blender’s time. Quality strength and movement comes with time and practice.
We’re often led to believe that a lot needs to be fixed. Nothing needs to be fixed, but a lot can be enhanced. That shift in perspective relies on the premise that we’re not starting with nothing. My athletes are always starting somewhere. The distinction is necessary if we want to succeed. We have footing to climb to the next step.
What Fitness actually is
In my mid-20s I found a fitness “guru” who developed a training program using body weight and an implement known as an Indian Club (they’re useful and beneficial to shoulder health and mobility when used properly). What was conveyed in the program, or at least my interpretation at the time, was that all of my movement patterns were deeply flawed and I could only progress to my beloved squats, presses, and strength training once these were “cleared up.” My strength dipped and my body composition wasn’t where I wanted it. I got stuck in guru-adherence and “insider” jargon. It happens. I chose the side dish disguised as the main course. My mistakes are my own and my Autism Fitness athlete’s gains (or GAINZ if we’re going to be all hardcore about it).
When considering physical fitness, some things are more important than others. Strength, stability, and motor planning are the three most important aspects of any general program, including and especially for those on the autism spectrum.
I have this vision I want to share. I walk into any adapted PE class and the students are warming up with hurdle steps, bear crawls, and medicine ball throws. They do some overhead band walks to open up their shoulders and upper back from sitting all morning and move on to squats, band pull-downs, and Sandbell presses.
Part of this vision is selfish. If I walked into this scene regularly it would make my job a lot easier. Each student would already be on course for having a healthy baseline of strength, stability, and motor planning upon which we could build with some clever programming variables and creativity. I wouldn’t have to explain why running on a treadmill could be detrimental for someone with mobility deficits or why a sports-based curriculum was inherently exclusive and did not fit the needs of each individual. But I still manage to have those conversations with regularity. So that’s the selfish part.
The altruistic part is that with a standardized definition and approach to fitness and health, we can clear the unfocus and make more intelligent, impactful decisions about where to spend time, money, and energy. There are things that work, and there are things that work more.
Do This by Thursday! Because it’s Thursday!
Strength, stability, and motor planning are the gateway to greater independence in activities of daily living and the pursuit of better physical functioning. The best ways to develop these skills have been identified, tested, validated, and demonstrated many times over. In fact, Autism Fitness exercise methods are just a program consisting of the most effective movement patterns for enhancing general physical performance. I didn’t “invent” any of the exercises, but put them together in a way that made sense for my athletes (and athletes with ASD everywhere else).
So we’ve got lower and upper body (to simplify). We have pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and locomotion. Healthy functioning in any of these movements means that it is pain- or restriction-free (the arm or leg can move through a full range of motion), and has enough strength and stability to perform daily life activities safely and efficiently.
While each athlete will differ in their baseline ability; Here are my go-to exercises, those that have the greatest potential generalization to other areas of life and performance.
A) Squats (most often to a Dynamax ball or stable surface)
Why: Hip mobility, preventing low back pain, leg/hip/trunk strength and stability
B) Hurdle Steps (6” or 12” hurdles)
Why: Hip flexibility, balance, trunk stability, motor planning
A) Overhead band walk
Why: Thoraccic (upper back) extension (important for restoring posture), shoulder stability
B) Standing band rows
Why: Upper back and shoulder strength, trunk stability
C) Overhead Sandbell press
Why: Shoulder and grip strength, trunk and shoulder stability
This video demonstrates some examples of Autism Fitness athletes performing these exercises.
For practical and hey-let’s-actually-do-this purposes, “healthy” physical fitness is related to strengthening the body in each of the major movement patterns and improving motor planning. Establishing a baseline (what we do with our PAC Profile Assessment), provides a starting point and allows us to set appropriate and individualized goals. Health and fitness do not have to be smile-and-nod vagaries but real, measurable, and impactful practices that do lead to a happier existence.
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.
More Fitness Fun
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- Looking for a Fun Family Exercise? How About Parkour!
- Fitness Equipment Worth Buying
- Fitness Gift Guide
- Come Bearing Gifts and Wearing Them Too! Technology Ideas for Your Family and Friends
- Gift Guide from the Fitness Guy
- 4 Exercise Progressions, 5W’s, and an H
- The Folly of Fitness Focus a User’s Guide
- Fitness Challenge
- Waving Not Drowning: The Process of Making Fitness Fun
- Five Fitness Facts for a Fitter Fall
- Fitness Fun: Incorporating Fitness into the Classroom
- Do You Struggle With Planning Healthy Meals for Your Family?
This post originally appeared on our March/April 2018 Magazine