Waving Not Drowning: The Process of Making Fitness Fun
Making Fitness Fun
When we embark upon a new activity or skill, we’re usually not too adept at it. From clarinet to skiing, I’ve experienced the enlightening glow of failure with numerous pursuits. I quit the clarinet in 4th grade after, as I recall, about three months and skiing I got good enough to realize it wasn’t my thing (I dislike the cold). Nonetheless, these were specific pieces of more general constructs; I still have a life-sound-tracking love of music. And, while “retiring” from skiing, I still, hopefully quite clearly, am highly active with weight training being my primary focus. Trying only one thing, having limited results, and “draining the whole ocean over it” is common with special needs and physical activity. Let’s figure out how to make it fun and sustainable.
You can’t force fun. That is the first rule in my Autism Fitness programming. Telling a less-than-enthused individual that they will/are having a good time when the opposite is quite evident does not help much. There are, however, a few key principles in establishing healthy levels of physical activity and proficiency for special needs populations.
1) Keep it General
At speaking events parents will approach me and say something like “We tried soccer and he/she didn’t like it”. This is the equivalent of saying “I tried celery and I don’t like it so now I can’t eat healthy”. One little area of team sports is not the whole world of physical activity. All of my programs revolve around fundamental movement activities; squatting, pushing, pulling, crawling, climbing, swinging, jumping, and throwing. Each movement can be made simpler or more challenging based on individual abilities. All of these “big” movement patterns will help us perform better in daily life, regardless of whether we participate in a specific sport.
Young people also tend to “burn out” from the same sport over and over. An approach that embraces “Active Play” lends to more creative options and being able to build on existing skills. Short jumps become longer jumps because the prerequisite skills have already been developed. It is far easier to go from general skill development to specific skill development than the reverse. For example, it is more efficient to strengthen the trunk and shoulders and then work on handwriting mechanics than starting with the hand (distal proximity) and working back towards the larger muscle groups (proximal).
2) Start Small and Short
With new fitness/movement activities, I like to begin with just a few minutes, sometimes a few seconds of activity followed by reinforcement and/or a break. This seemingly arduous process is helpful because it introduces new tasks slowly without being overwhelming. For individuals with gross motor or strength deficits (just about every individual with ASD I’ve ever worked with), performing the new exercises without fatigue is critical to developing proper technique and motor planning. In school settings and at home, I am a proponent of interval fitness activities. A few medicine ball push throws and a bear walk. Then, maybe twenty minutes later, they can do some squats and jumps rather than saying “Okay, we’re going to do movement for the next 45 minutes.” Starting off with short periods of new activities can alleviate anxiety and introduce new skills systematically.
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