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.
3) Pairing for Reinforcement
Pairing is the process of combining a neutral or non-preferred stimuli (physical activity, in our case) with a known reinforcer. Pairing is cool. When we do something that may be disliked, but do it in a positive environment that rewards us for trying, eventually that non-preferred thing can become reinforcing itself. On the journey towards making fitness fun, we want to include behavior-specific praise, access to breaks, and, apart from edibles, provide individualized rewards for engaging in a new activity.
When first introducing exercise and active play programming, our athletes may need a high ratio of reinforcement time to instructional time. Eventually, with consistent practice, success with new activities, and positive support, we can “thin” the schedule and have a healthier ratio of instructional-to-autonomous time.
4) Balance Structure and Controlled Chaos
My favorite question to ask my athletes is “What do you want to do”? Of course, in order to ask this, I have to be certain that they are already capable of performing some of the foundational activities from which to choose. If I know that my athlete(s) has/have independently mastered push, overhead and scoop throws, bear walks, low hurdle jumps, squats to a ball, overhead Sandbell walks, and can discriminate between red, blue, and green cones, then we have a basis for some self-driven active play.
The previously-mentioned activities were, at some point, all taught in a structured environment. Each was probably regressed to a point where the athlete could perform some version of the activity and progressed until they could perform the movement with appropriate levels of strength and stability. Structure time is when we teach individual activities to the point of mastery. Controlled chaos time (AKA play), is when those skills are taken to the playground, park, or other appropriate environment and performed in a random sequence.
Developing active play skills relies on first teaching movement patterns in a structured setting. This is why it is crucial to increase adaptive functioning (motivation) where it is lacking. The more motivated an athlete is to engage in physical activity, the more teaching opportunities we will have.
All four of the concepts outlined here have significant correlation to one another. General activities introduced in short periods of instructional time, with appropriate and individualized reinforcement with eventual encouragement of autonomy, is a wordy but efficient path to success. The process of teaching exercise and active play in a way that is conducive to enjoyment and long-term engagement means making sure you account for these factors. Very few of us in Neurotypical-land enjoy being told what to do, particularly for lengthy periods of time.
We want our special needs athletes to develop active play skills while being able to generalize what they do during fitness time to new environments and situations. We return to structure time to develop skills further, make fitness even more fun, and establish healthy living over a lifetime.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS Eric Chessen, M.S. is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (www.autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on www.autismfitness.com
Image courtesy Facebook Friends
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2014 Magazine