Fitness, Autism, and disABILITIES in the Times of Covid-19
Tips from Bloom Fitness, Autism Fitness, and Inclusive Fitness
By Jovia Scrogin, Bike to the Beach staff writter
If you’re anything like me, the moment I find myself in a consistent and successful exercise routine, something happens to put me back on the sidelines. I started 2007 with ACL reconstruction surgery; in 2012 I was blessed with the physical restrictions of a twin pregnancy. In 2016 I was told I needed a hip replacement and in 2020 my gym membership, along with all of yours, was cancelled by COVID. So what do we do when our fitness routine is thwarted? How do we keep moving forward despite challenges? And most importantly, how do we help our children and family members affected by autism and disabilities continue living their healthiest lives? Parents have, among other things, taken on the role of coach and trainer. We know that it seems improbable to recreate your child’s fitness and programming from home. But some of the fitness experts who partner with Bike to the Beach want to give you tips on how to do just that. I spoke with John Watson of Bloom Fitness, Eric Chessen of Autism Fitness and Greg Austin of Inclusive Fitness to get their best advice for parents.
Create Your Own Community of Fitness
Athletes in Bloom Fitness classes come to practice Pilates, yoga, dance and cycling. But they also come because they’re part of something. These classes provide a sense of place, a feeling of community, a home away from home. The athletes in the classes sweat together, but they also celebrate each other’s accomplishments and milestones. This sense of community is vital to maintaining consistent exercise. At Inclusive Fitness, Chessen and Austin view fitness in a holistic way. Health and wellbeing is a treatment for the whole family, not just one individual. Parents now have the opportunity to join in on their child’s fitness community. Parents and siblings should join in virtual classes, should perform repetitions right along their family members. Many health and wellness providers—Bloom and Inclusive Fitness included—are in the midst of transitioning to virtual offerings. Families should utilize these technologies so athletes can see, communicate with and exercise “alongside” their fellow athletes. These extended communities also facilitate accountability. Parents, you can include virtual exercise with friends to the day’s schedule, providing a much needed moment of connection in the midst of isolation.
A supportive community is not just important for the athletes. Parents and caregivers should also establish and maintain relationships with others. We are all trying to navigate our new responsibilities, and having peers in similar situations always helps. Greg Austin – a fitness coach for neurodiverse people and their families and father of a 14-year old boy on the autism spectrum – says that sometimes he needs the ear of another parent so that he can vent and socialize before getting in some squats and heavy-carries with his son. He wants parents to know that “this is hard, but doable. And you’re not alone. If we learn and work together, fitness for everyone can be incredibly rewarding.”
Search for Motivation
If I could solve the problem of intrinsic motivation, I would be the richest fitness professional in history. If I could just solve the problem of MY intrinsic motivation, I would be on the cover of Shape Magazine. But that’s an entirely different blog post. What parents and families are being asked to do right now is to TRY to figure out how to motive their athlete. Chessen tells us that proficiency begets preference. So perhaps sticking with well known, well-loved activities will motivate your child. He also tells us that muscle memory and recall can help ease an athlete along in a new situation. So start with what they know and celebrate their effort.
At Bloom Fitness, Watson warns his instructors to get out of the way at the end of each class. You see, at the end of class, the participants get to place their hard earned achievement sticker on the Champion Boards. With each class, the athlete earns a sticker and over time earns more prizes. If group fitness instructors happen to be standing in front of that board, they run the risk of getting trampled. Recognition for work is important. Celebration of work is vital. The athletes thrive on the celebration and take great pride in what they’ve accomplished. Parents can replicate incentive charts at home; we know they work for a myriad of behavioral modifications. Your version of the Champion Board doesn’t have to be fancy. What’s important is that your athlete’s effort is applauded.
We all know a one-size-fits-all approach does not work in most situations, and motivation for fitness is no different. As parents we must try to tap into our child’s unique personality and wants. Greg’s 14-year-old son, Lucas, loves Disney’s Maleficent. And you know what motivates Lucas to do what he needs to do? Maleficent swag. He’s on his second cape, he’s earned his own pair of horns, and just this week he earned a Maleficent staff. What an accomplishment! Greg and his wife have been able to find a way to make exercise fun and effective. Lucas even gets to wear his horns while exercising. He’s found his motivation and it works!
Tailor Your Information Delivery
I often find myself having something VERY IMPORTANT to tell my kids, but the urgency seems to get lost in translation. Parents now, perhaps more than ever, have the opportunity to really hone the way we communicate to our kids. To fully engage athletes in fitness activities, Watson emphasis that pacing is very important. We cannot simply pop in an exercise video tailored to the general population. We have to take cues from our athletes about the time it takes to transition from one activity to the next, perhaps take a break from activity all together for further demonstration. Empathetic coaching is also very important. Our athletes, like most of the human race, need their struggles to be recognized and not dismissed. Part of being an empathetic coach is to protect the athlete from sensory overload. Music, bright lights, excessive cueing and circulating fans are staples in commercial fitness centers, but these “minor details” could thwart the best of intentions. And, according to Chessen, one of the best things you can do as a parent-coach is to “shut your mouth.” Chessen frequently experiences parents who over explain, overcorrect, and under educate. Physical cues are much more effective. Show your child what to do, step back and you’ll be amazed at what they can accomplish.
Don’t Let Perfect Get In the Way of Great
Chessen and Austin caution parents from “shoulding” their way through fitness. Their athlete “should” be able to complete a specific exercise or task; their athlete “should” be able to complete a certain number of repetitions. Chessen states that when parents and athletes can “start where we’re starting, everything else is noise and we find success.” Maintaining a healthy fitness level is important, but shouldn’t be anxiety provoking for parents. Exercises at home do not have to be performed to perfection. They just have to be performed safely and consistently.
What are you doing in your home? What has worked for you and you family? Share your success stories or just stop in to vent! We’re all in this together and Bike to the Beach is here to support you!