February 14, 2017
Exercise for #autistics – when, where, how?
I’ve always been an active person. When I was a kid, I was a bundle of energy — actually, a bundle of sensory-overloaded nerves — and I was in motion a lot. Fortunately, both of my parents were athletic and active, themselves, so keeping up with me was not an issue for them. My sister and I were a bit “feral” — Mom kept us on a leash, at times, because we would take off running in all directions, and that just wasn’t safe.
I think she dispensed with the leash, after she got a lot of disapproving looks. But I totally understand why she did it.
Exercise and movement have always been important to me. In fact, I don’t feel right, if I don’t move. That can be a problem, because when I’m absorbed in one of my all-consuming interests, I can sit absolutely still for hours on end, enveloped in my focused bliss. So, to offset the very real possibility that I’ll be stationary – motionless – for hours at a time, I’ve gotten in the habit of exercising first thing in the morning, when I wake up. I ride an exercise bike for 20 minutes, then I do some other movement for another 5-10 minutes… stretching, dancing, juggling, moving, or lifting light (5 lb) dumbbells.
I try to get some exercise during the day, too — going for a long walk around the office, or even going for a swim at the fitness center pool where I work. When winter comes, I get plenty of additional weight-lifting exercise, in the form of moving snow. I have a snowblower, but I actually prefer to shovel, as it gives me the kind of resistance exercise that helps me with my balance, as well as proprioception (my sense of where my body is, in space). Weight-bearing activities also help me keep my bone density up. Osteoporosis runs in my family, and since weight-bearing exercise has been clinically shown to increase bone density, I make it a regular part of my life. I’m aware. And I need to be responsible.
Rigorous, hard, sweat-producing exercise is wonderful. It helps my sensory issues like nothing else. It seems to “clear out my cobwebs” and center me like nothing else. I feel like I’m back in my body, and I’m quite happy to be there. If I don’t have a long, hard workout on a regular basis, I feel more sensitive overall. And that’s often a precursor to additional issues — like wandering attention and a generally bad mood.
I’ve heard other autistic folks talk about how exercise helps them, too, especially with sensory issues. On the other hand, I’ve heard a number of others say that they can’t stand exercise, and they’d much rather be curled up in a warm corner, reading a book… or going online… or listening to music.
It’s a personal thing.
But we still need to get at least some exercise. The body needs to move. Exercise helps with so many different things, whether it’s blood pressure and other system regulations, or mood, or moving lymph around to remove waste from our bodies. But how much is enough?
Official guidelines for this seem to change on a regular basis. Once upon a time, we were supposed to exercise 30 minutes a day, every day. Then it was 30 minutes a day, 3 to 5 days a week. Now someone has discovered that getting a lot of exercise on weekends may be good enough. It keeps changing. And the guidelines don’t always make sense from a logistic standpoint.
What’s more, the kinds of exercise aren’t always what work for us. Trauma survivors (or people with panic/anxiety) may get emotionally triggered by strenuous exercise that raises their heart rate and makes them feel like they’re in a fight-flight situation. Lifting weights may not be possible, if you don’t own some and/or you don’t go to the gym. You may not want to go to the gym, because… well, there are people there. Looking at you. Trying to talk to you. Yeah… nope. And other ways, like playing on a team or going out in public, might also not be the most appealing.
So, what to do?
Well, remember that exercise can come in many different shapes and sizes. Bottom line, it’s just moving your body so your heart rate increases and your system gets much-needed “stirring”. You can come up with your own solution(s) that work for you, in the conditions where you find yourself.
Walking across a parking lot… taking the stairs instead of the elevator… doing some knee bends when you have a few minutes… carrying groceries to your car… carrying a book bag… going for a hike in the woods, or a run down the road… doing a little tai chi or qi gong in the morning before your day starts… swimming in a local lake… even some “desk yoga” when you’re at work or at your desk at home.
These are all ways you can get some exercise – in ways that work for you.
So much the better, if they connect with some of your all-consuming interests.
Some people are really into geocaching – that’s a great way to get out and move around.
Some folks love their gear, so going for a weekend camping trip is another good way to get out in the world.
Some folks love their WII, which has a lot of physical games you can choose from.
And some folks really get into things like contra-dancing and martial arts, which have their own esoteric subcultures behind them, which can make for fascinating studies.
As with just about anything autistic, the options are many and varied, and we can make of them pretty much what we wish. Your way of getting exercise (like walking up three flights of stairs and counting the steps as you go) may not look anything like someone else’s (donning their self-constructed chain mail and charging into mock battle at the local SCA gathering), but if it works for you, that’s what matters most.
Personally, I’d be lost without my exercise. It helps me so much. And I know I’m not alone.