Embracing The Inclusion Of Physical Activity For Autistic Individuals

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Recent studies have increasingly highlighted a concerning link between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and a higher risk of an inactive lifestyle and obesity. Several factors contribute to the increased risk of obesity and physical inactivity in ASD individuals. These include lifestyle factors, biological influences, secondary comorbidities, and the side effects of certain medications. Additionally, specific behavioral and lifestyle factors have been identified as contributing to unhealthy weight gain in autistic children. This includes the influence of sleep problems, gut microbiome disturbances, endocrine influences, and maternal metabolic disorders.

Research has concluded that physical activity positively affects social skills and behavior in autistic children and adolescents. Activities such as martial arts have been singled out as particularly beneficial due to their structured nature and emphasis on discipline and self-control.

Dr. Sharief Taraman, is a pediatric neurologist in the US and CEO of Cognoa, a pediatric behavioral health company. “The key is to develop a routine during critical time windows when exercise is particularly important,” he explained. “For example, it’s imperative to meaningfully exercise between the ages of ten to mid-20s to mineralize bone properly. It cannot be done later in life, so starting early is imperative. Exercise is very important to brain health and can have a significant impact on autistic children.”

However, less than half of adults in the US with mobility disabilities report engaging in aerobic physical activity. People with disabilities are less likely to engage in regular moderate physical activity than people without disabilities, yet they have similar needs to promote their health and prevent unnecessary disease. Physical activity can help control weight, improve mental health, reduce depression/anxiety, and lower the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. For people with disabilities, physical activity can help support daily living activities and independence.

Neurodiverse individuals often face unique challenges to physical fitness, creating calls for more tailored approaches to promoting physical fitness and healthy lifestyles within this population.

Overcoming Barriers to Fitness

Billy Blanks Jr., President of Kibu, a live and on-demand fitness platform for people with special needs, explained, “Multiple barriers exist to preventing individuals with special needs from attending fitness classes.” He highlighted that “the fitness industry has not been especially welcoming to people with disabilities, and there has been a lack of access to inclusive options. It takes understanding, patience, and care. People underestimate the power of inclusion and representation. Creating a safe environment for people to participate, build confidence, and have fun while exercising.”

Kit Rich pointed out that “without having special needs, gyms and exercise classes can be intimidating for people, and the risk of injury is high if you don’t know how to work the equipment or perform certain moves.” Ms. Rich is a celebrity fitness trainer, writer, and director who recently finished her first film, Isabel’s Garden, and is in pre-production for her second film, It’s Official. She added that “for someone with special needs, the intimidation factor and risk for potential injury certainly increases even more. Combining loud noises, people, and equipment can create sensory overload for some individuals. This can cause anxiety fear, and increase again the risk of injury. In a class setting, the trainer has to keep an eye on everyone, not just one person, so this can potentially be riskier for someone with special needs who deserves proper attention.”

Simple Ways to Incorporate Fitness

Blanks suggested, “A simple way people of all abilities and ages can incorporate fitness into their lives is by playing music they love that gets them moving. Move the same way you would at a wedding or a birthday party. If you are in a wheelchair, put the music on and move your arms to the beat! Raising your arms above your shoulder level for consistent movements instantly increases your cardio workout. Choose music that gets you feeling good and move.”

Rich also recommends incorporating small breaks dedicated to movement throughout the day. “Maybe it’s 5 minutes every hour that you get up and walk around or dance. This is not just good for your body but good for your mind and spirit. Small steps create big changes.”

The Role of Social Media and Fitness Culture

Social media can exacerbate the issue by promoting unrealistic body standards and “fat shaming” those who are looking to get more fit. Rich noted that “some fitness influencers jump on this bandwagon and gym shame or fat shame to get attention.” Still, she believes that “providing encouragement, joy, and compassion for others is a much more powerful tool if we allow it to be.”

In addition, Blanks emphasized the need for education and inclusion in the fitness industry. “I would recommend that fitness organizations and instructors educate themselves about the importance of inclusion and how they can make their organizations and programming accessible to people of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and fitness levels,” he said. “We all want to matter, and we all want to believe we can do what we put our minds to. Take the extra time and care to create programs that benefit different populations while incorporating everyone. Fitness is important for everyone’s physical, mental, and emotional health. A healthy body leads to a clearer mind. Working out and learning in an inclusive environment has as many mental benefits as physical benefits.”

Rich also desired a shift in focus within the fitness industry. “I would like to see more of a positive movement where it’s less about physical perfection and more about improving mental health,” she shared. “I think the more people focus on feeling versus how someone looks is always the right direction to go in.”

Neurodiverse individuals and those with disabilities face unique challenges. Still, they can reap the benefits of physical activity with the right support and inclusive environments.

The fitness industry must embrace inclusion and provide accessible options for all, focusing on the holistic well-being of individuals rather than just physical appearance.

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