Content Warning: Fatphobia. Objectification.
Also, exercise. Uggggggghhhhhh.
I find physical exercise of any kind tremendously uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating. The fast breathing, the sweating, the movement, the strain. Just, all of it. Some people claim to “love exercising!” but some people also claim to have seen the Loch Ness Monster.
I can't conceive of it.
Jog away from me right now.
For my fellow struggling exercisers who remain: Raise your hand up and face-palm if you’re familiar with “Fitspiration.”
You know, those awful images circulating on social media depicting a thin, toned person - usually a half-naked woman - with a motivational quote about “work out now so next year everyone be like holy sh*t.” (That’s a real one. I couldn’t even make that up if I tried.) Below please enjoy corrected versions of dreadful fitspiration graphics courtesy of buzzfeed and ragetimeroastbeefy, which I share in attempt to make up for the description of that first one.
Whenever I come across a fatphobic, objectifying fitspiration graphic, I think how abhorrent it is and how I wish I could slap some sense and sensitivity into the person who created it.
And, how my own version of fitspiration would just be a picture of me standing still, looking sort of dazed, still in my pajama pants, holding a dumbbell in one hand and my cat in the other, with my shoelaces tied together.
The quote would read, “Good try. Whatever happens, try not to land on the cat.”
As a little girl of nine years old, I would hide in the girl’s bathroom during P.E., pretending to be throwing up or suffering from asthma. I didn’t actually have asthma, but it got me out of P.E. a few times. In my bedtime prayers, I would squeeze my eyes shut tight and pray for rain the next day, so I wouldn’t have to play outside at recess. It was all so chaotic. The shouting, the laughing, the throw-it-over-here and running laps and trying to hit the ball straight and hard enough to make it go.
I was dreadfully uncoordinated and overwhelmed all of the time.
My parents persisted in trying to get my sister and I to be more active children. She, with her baby dolls and me with my books. One year for Christmas, my step-mom (who, incidentally, had been the very first female on her high-school water polo team and was quite athletic) gifted us sporting equipment: a soccer ball, football, baseball glove and bat. I knew right then that she hated me and was hoping I’d run away to my grandma’s house.
My one bad grade in high school was in P.E. where I flatly refused to change into my gym clothes, exercise, shower and change clothes again. I was a straight-A student, in Advanced Placement everything, with a 4.29 GPA. How could I possibly understand - much less explain to my teacher - that I was absolutely incapable of making that many transitions in a 45-minute period of time. I had tried initially, of course, but was reduced to tears each time and found myself useless the remainder of the school day.
My deep loathing of physical exercise was solidified.
After I gave birth to my daughter, I was 30 or so pounds heavier than I liked, and my sister talked me into going to the gym with her. I paid my sign-up fee and went exactly twice. There were dozens of people. Moving in different ways. I was so anxious and so overwhelmed by the sounds of the machines and the bright light and the smell of body odor and the sensation of the air from the ceiling fan on my hot skin. I felt so guilty about wasted hundreds of dollars in gym membership fees that year, but I couldn’t bring myself to go.
Many years later, my sister asked me to try a yoga class with her. I made it through the hour… barely. When I got home, I made it into the bathtub, sobbed until I was exhausted, climbed into bed and slept for 10 hours straight. I hated myself for being so weak. And that was my last attempt.
In 2015, I was formally diagnosed as autistic. I spent last year becoming informed about my neurology, and becoming more aware of the challenges I always knew I had, but couldn’t name or understand. It suddenly made perfect sense that I struggle so much with physical fitness.
While I'm a proudly neurodivergent person and I celebrate the unique way I perceive and interact with the world around me, challenges come with the territory, and disability is real. My executive functioning issues make any combination of tasks a little tricky. Tasks that I’m not familiar with, involve coordination and simultaneous mental activity, and cause me varying degrees of sensory discomfort are all the more so.
I have certain physical limitations with regard to gross motor skills. In effect, I run into things that I see are there and I trip over my own feet. I know now that my sensory sensitivities are legitimate and are sometimes debilitating. I know my difficulty planning and organizing makes it difficult to accomplish tasks that seem simple to other people. Now that I know what’s tripping me up (pun intended), I can get a little help and set myself up to succeed.
Obviously, fitness is imperative for the health of every person - autistic or not. As I’ve aged, I recognize its necessity more and more. Over the years, my lack of physical activity and my unusual dietary patterns contributed to my overall less-than-awesome health over the years. There was a time when eating two handfuls of Cheez-Its and drinking a Coke was lunch. I’m proud to say that I’ve worked hard in the area of nutrition, learning to eat more healthful foods more consistently. I consider myself so fortunate to have access to nutritional food options and the ability to prepare some of them myself.
My goals in the coming year are to address my ongoing struggle with physical activity. To be more present in my physical body, to try to appreciate my sensory experience, and to sit longer with discomfort. As much as is reasonable.
I began as many of us do on January 1st. Motivated. Determined. So, there I was on New Years’ Day, jogging (read, “walk-flop-shuffle-scuffing”) at home, and my internal monologue began, growing louder and louder, sounding something like this:
‘I hate this. This is the worst thing. I’m hot. Oh my god, it’s so hot and I can’t breathe and I’m going to pass out. My heartbeat is erratic. It’s really erratic. Uh-oh, I might be having an heart attack. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am. Better stop and look it up on WebMD.’
I didn’t do that. Instead, I Googled “autism fitness,” and nearly every result lead me to the same place.
I discovered Eric Chessen, founder of Autism Fitness, an author, advocate and resource for bringing fitness to the autistic community.
Not only was he willing to share some tips to get me started, he encouraged me to pass this on to my autistic friends.
first, some FIELD NOTES AS COMMENTARY ON SARA LEEANN'S Essay:
Regarding memes: Most of us rational and halfway accomplished trainers sit around in our off-hours making fun of awful fitness memes. We're usually too busy running our businesses to create this shit.
Regarding Sara’s awful but not uncommon PE and fitness experiences: Most of what the rational trainer community does is de-program (think similar to psychological rehab programs for torture survivors on a lesser level) people from the horrendous experiences they had in PE or walking into a gym. So most people enter into the gym/fitness world having a skewed perception because their experiences were so bad.
Regarding my own experience: Finally, as to my own history, I was an overweight kid who hid from PE class almost all of junior year and when I came back in the coach says "Eric, you been here the last few months?" "Yeah coach." "Oh, musta been cause you lost all that weight" The weight I lost was because I walked into the weight room on my own and just started working out. Because I hated team sports and had few friends. And team sports are the foundation of most PE programs now and it completely sucks. Because the only reason for it is a cultural obsession propped up by a billion dollar youth sport industry.
Have you ventured past a commercial gym and felt intimidated, confused, and overwhelmed? Super secret information; so do most of the neurotypical adult population.
Physical fitness is an odd pursuit in the US. Where decades ago information regarding how to get fit was difficult to find, we are now bombarded with ideas, products, places, and promises. I’ve spent over a decade breaking down fitness into three components for the ASD population; physical, adaptive, and cognitive. It is my lofty goal in this article to present the most important concepts for fitness not as a have-to, but as a want-to.
# 1: The Why
Physical fitness is important. There’s rarely an argument with this statement but what do we actually mean by fitness? What are the most important benefits? A good fitness program has both proactive and preventative benefits. Appropriate and progressive training enables us to be stronger, move better, feel energized, and, as validated research has demonstrated, optimize cognitive and emotional abilities. Strength and stability gained in the fitness environment generalizes to daily life skills, which is the most important attribute of any fitness program.
# 2: The What
Strength and mobility are the foundation of healthy movement. Quick analogy; in our American culture we tend to view sports-based activities as the “top of the pyramid” or the greatest possible expression of physical endeavors. Rather than a pyramid, physical activity is more like a tree. You can branch off into a wide variety of different pursuits (team sports, swimming, biking, climbing, etc), but the roots and the trunk of that tree are in general physical abilities and active play. Active play is a separate article.
So what encompasses general physical fitness?
What are the go-to activities that provide the most benefit?
We can look at the fundamental movement patterns:
Squatting: Movement towards the ground
Pushing: Movement away from the body
Pulling: Movement towards the body
Locomotion: Getting from point A to point B
Hinging: Picking things up off the ground
While this is a general list, it provides the foundation for what each and every one of us needs as part of a strength and fitness program.
From this basic list we can start filling in exercises for each movement pattern:
Squatting: Body weight squats, loaded squats (back, front)
Pushing: Push-ups, overhead presses
Pulling: Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Resistance band pulls
Locomotion: Crawl patterns (bear walks), jumps/hops, sprints, carrying weighted objects
Hinging: Deadlifts, kettlebell swings
# 3: The How
Putting together a fitness program can be an overwhelming task. The “What” above provided a list of the most essential exercises, but how do we put them together in a program? More importantly, how do we learn to perform these exercises safely and effectively based on our unique abilities (we all move a bit differently).
Finding a qualified coach in your area (even online) is important to ensure proper individualized programming. But what qualifies a qualified trainer or coach?
I’ll share with you some inside industry information.
There exists something approaching 200 different fitness certifications available. I just tried to Google it but couldn’t find a consensus. Many of these are garbage. They entail a correspondence course with basic anatomy and a list of exercises. There are perhaps a dozen worthwhile certifications (along with BA and Master’s level university programs) that provide a good educational foundation. The truth is that much like being a sushi chef, fitness training is best learned in an apprenticeship/mentoring model in addition to some formal education in functional anatomy, kinesiology, and other junk that isn’t necessary for discussion here.
Small, independently owned strength and conditioning facilities tend to have the best trainers. These are the men and women who really, really care about their clients. I meet them all the time at seminars. They aren’t the ones advertising in magazines or on the internet (in large marketing campaigns). Their gyms are usually sparse and filled with free weights (this is a good thing).The irony is that these are the gyms that seem most intimidating to most of the public.
If you aren’t ready to commit to finding a trainer or joining a facility, you can put together a program at home. While you can begin with body weight-only exercises including push-ups, squats, and pull-ups (there are some sturdy doorway chin-up bars on the market unlike the ones I regularly ripped off the doorframe as a 10 year-old).
Soon some equipment will be needed. I prefer to keep things simple. A few dumbbells, a few kettlebells, a doorway chin-up bar (I like GorillaGym.com), and a sandbag (I like BruteForce.com) will help you progress. Starting with 2-4 exercises per session for 2-4 sets with 8-10 repetitions is a gateway to a good foundation.
#4: The Motivation
Of course none of the above matters at all without the motivation, consistent motivation, to train. When I was a junior in high school, I walked into the weight room after school one day, having no idea what to do or any guidance, and began to “use” the universal machine with its chest concentrator thing (technical name the pec deck), pull-down bar (technical name the lat pull-down), and some other relatively useless devices that I haven’t used since. I wanted to start lifting weights to change from an overweight kid into…something else.
Writing this article now almost twenty years later, my biggest challenge is to disregard the fact that I actually love training in order to convince those who do not, or have not yet begun, that the first step of motivation is to start, and the second step is to recognize that the initial motivation will dissolve, and that dedication and routine can take its place. Motivation will return.
It is also true that becoming stronger usually brings an enjoyment of being stronger. The journey begets the journey.
I truly couldn’t agree more with Eric about the journey.
I know that despite my struggle to deal with the overwhelming sensations in my body as I exercise, that I’m getting stronger every day. I don't always manage to stick with it as long as I'd like, but taking any action (no matter how small) propels me further toward self-confidence and wellness. Sometimes my journeying looks a little clumsy and feels uncomfortable, but the important thing is that I'm still showing up and still putting one sneaker in front of the other. Sometimes, I even tie them properly.
Thank you, Eric, for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. I especially enjoyed your commentary and I'm looking forward to incorporating these basic exercises into my routine.
I'll be sharing more soon about what I learned with regard to:
1.) choosing the right physical activities according to my strengths;
2.) exercising safely when balance and coordination are an issue;
3.) dealing with accompanying sensory sensitivities; and,
4.) knowing how much is too much - before meltdown!
As always, thank you all for the gift of your attention. If you're inclined, come back and chat with me on Facebook. Leave a comment and let's learn and inspire each other.
What are your favorite (or least un-favorite) kinds of physical exercise?
What are your challenges with regard to fitness?
What has worked for you?