Programming & Understanding of Essential Physical Needs
Motorvation! Ensuring Fitness as a Life Skill: Programming & Understanding of Essential Physical Needs
If we can agree that fitness is an important aspect of optimal development for the autism, special needs, general, non-general, non-denominational, amphibious, and quadruped populations, it would make sense that it be considered and taught as a life skill. If we’re teaching skills that should be performed over a lifetime, there should also be an emphasis on fun. The more we enjoy doing a particular activity, the more we’re likely to engage in it over time and independently.
The Fitness Industry’s Needs and Wants
The fitness industry is a constant balance of needs and wants. Apart from sport-specific athletes (who, by the way, also care about the aesthetic qualities of training), most people begin some type of fitness/movement activity either to feel more active/healthy, improve body composition (fat loss, muscle gain), or a combination of both. While some people discover aspects of fitness and movement that they really enjoy, others “try working out” and then decide that they hate it.
Most big commercial gyms are not….repeat NOT… designed to provide the best possible fitness experience. They are designed to maximize the amount of paying members and minimize the utilization of floor space. They don’t even want you there, or at least most of you. If monthly rates are low enough they can have a thousand paying members, ten percent of whom show up on a regular basis and jump right onto the cardio machines (treadmills, elipticals) which are, surprise, somehow miraculously all over the place. Why is this? Why would many gyms want to minimize fitness and set a poor example of what effective, and yes, reinforcing fitness can be?
Changing the Dreaded “have to” Fitness
Embrace being Active
Many adults consider going to the gym a “have to” experience if indeed they do venture out. From a social and cultural perspective, it is difficult to teach fitness as a life skill if we, or the vast majority of us, detest the standard fitness environment and/or what is commonly considered physical fitness, how can we pass on the embracement of being active?
Read: Be Active and Healthy
Overwhelmingly, people need to gain strength, stability, and better movement. My Autism Fitness athletes need to gain strength, stability, and better movement. Your grandmother needs to gain strength, stability, and better movement. It is all, as one of my great influences Coach Dan John would describe, “Simple, but not easy'” So we have to make it fun and reinforcing, especially for populations who find it aversive.
Late-night DVD infomercials and high-end Yogalatespinning ™ studios will convince people that they are offering some magic way to get the fitness results that you want, regardless of whether the program is contrary to what you need in order to get those outcomes. At respectable strength and fitness conferences around the country there are caring, competent trainers and coaches discussing the best way to explain that unless it can literally change your genetic composition, your DNA structure, yoga will not give you “long, lean muscles.”
So what the “cronk” does the information above have to do with long-term fitness for the autism and special needs populations?
First, programming. An understanding of essential physical needs will allow us to create the best possible programs for any individual. What are the qualities that are important? What is the individual’s current ability and what would appropriate goals be?
I think some people are thrown off by the repetition in my sessions. My athletes perform the same exercises, in varying orders, many times. And then one day something clicks, and they can perform a squat independently, or can “bear walk” five more feet than last week, or begin requesting a specific exercise. Repetition allows the athlete to become familiar, comfortable, confident, and capable. By progressing from the current level of ability, we can promote actual skill development and independent mastery.
Let’s consider some common daily life skills:
Walking up and down steps, sitting/standing, reaching for objects both high and low, carrying objects, opening doors/cabinets/drawers, bathing and personal hygiene. Nearly all of these are enhanced through stronger and more stable pushing, pulling, squatting, and locomotive movements. So we build programming around squatting, pushing, pulling, and locomotive movements because we know this is what will provide short- and long-term benefit.
Second, motivation and reinforcement.
If we make something as enjoyable as possible, chances are better that it will become habit. An individual seeking out exercise activities during independent time is just about the best outcome I can imagine. If, based on assessment, we know what exercises and activities would enhance current skills, making the sessions enjoyable is the complimentary piece.
A supportive environment is one that limits anxiety and provides opportunities for success. What this translates to is choosing progressions or regressions that the athlete can perform, replacing “Have to” instructions with “Let’s try this…,” leaving room for choice of activity, and providing plenty of behavior-specific praise (not just “great job,” but “Great job bending knees on that jump!”)
There are legions of children, adolescents, and teens who played a single (or multiple) sports for years and then (strangely and oddly and, for some of us, very predictably) woke up one day and decided they didn’t want to participate anymore. So now what? General fitness and active play programs don’t suffer from the same constraints as sports-based programs. With general programs, we can build the activities around the individual, even in group situations. We can be far more creative, allowing for autonomy, choice of exercises, and even create completely new games.
Ensuring Health, Ability & Happiness
Long-term fitness engagement is a process of covering the needs of each individual (which are overwhelmingly similar), and meeting those needs with appropriate activities that are made simpler or more challenging (regressed/progressed) according to current ability. Equally important is the pairing of exercise with a positive environment, access to reinforcing or preferred activities following success with a specific activity, and gradually building in autonomy with exercise choices and creativity through building new activities together. In following this guideline we can better ensure a life of health, ability, and happiness for those with autism and developmental disabilities.
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.
Learn More About Fitness
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- 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
- Looking for a Fun Family Exercise? How About Parkour!
This post originally appeared on our July/August 2015 Magazine