Supporting Exercise & Fitness Goals

Cynthia DeFerrari

With warmer temperatures and longer hours of daylight, the summer months provide the perfect time to pursue daily exercise activities and establish fitness goals.

Exercise can have significant benefits for Autistic individuals, including improvement of motor skills and providing opportunities to develop social connections. The specific benefits of regular exercise also include:

  • Decreasing stress, which leads to positive effects on the cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems by protecting your body from the harmful effects of stress.
  • Increasing the production of endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitters.
  • Increasing self-confidence, which improves mood, while lowering symptoms of mild depression and anxiety.
  • Helping individuals stay calm and thereby increases the ability to stay focused, aiding in executive functioning. 
  • Increasing physical strength and endurance while increasing the likelihood of a healthy life.
  • Increasing resilience while boosting mental health.
  • Improvement in sleep quality and reducing the risk of disease.
  • Strengthening bones and muscles
  • Boosting confidence
  • Improving cognitive function 
  • Reducing the incidence of disease

While staying active has many positive benefits, adopting a fitness routine can be hard, and Autistic individuals might face unique challenges. Sometimes social and communication challenges can make joining a physical fitness group or engaging in a fitness program a daunting task, or individuals may face initial challenges with balance and coordination. AANE LifeMAP coaches provide support to Autistic clients with fitness goals to overcome these barriers and help increase a sense of well-being and enhance both physical and mental health. These goals can give individuals not only the opportunity to engage with others who share similar interests, but can encourage self-confidence and build self-awareness.   

AANE’s LifeMAP coaches have great advice on how professionals and families can support Autistic individuals with fitness goals:

  • Create an open discussion about exercise and listen. What does the Autistic individual want out of a fitness routine? What are the barriers they have faced in the past? Are there any types of activities they enjoy doing now? What would make physical activities more engaging for them? LifeMAP coaches also state the importance of talking to their clients about the benefits of physical fitness and how it helps to affect other areas of life in a positive way. “We have an opportunity to talk about the value of exercise (physically, cognitively, emotionally) during our coaching sessions,” one LifeMAP coach explained. This information is important to help identify what is important to the individual.
  • Find the right activity. Coaches encourage different options of physical activity until the client finds a good fit. A coach shared how together with the client, they were able to find a routine that made exercising fun. “We will engage in conversation or play games while my client walks,” the coach said.

    Everyone is unique, and some folks may prefer individual activities such as swimming, walking, golf, or running. Others, however, may prefer engaging in group or instructor-led activities such as a recreational soccer league, fitness classes, or tennis lessons. Talk through the options, and when a choice is made to try, identify the necessary steps to engage. Problem-solve together how to address any barriers or anxiety.
  • Start small and let them build at their own pace. It is easy to set unrealistic expectations, which can be discouraging and lead to quitting. There is a better chance of success when the Autistic individual can start wherever they are and gradually increase their activity at their own pace. One LifeMAP client expressed, “My coach helped me to start my fitness journey in small steps.  For example, while I was initially reluctant to walk alone, my coach encouraged me to walk my dog.  As time progressed, I began to expand my activities to include running with a neighbor who walks their dog with me. Not only did I increase my fitness level, but I have gained a new friendship.” Other clients engage other family members in after-dinner walks where they have meaningful conversations while keeping up with their fitness routine.

    “Whatever a client’s preference, we encourage fitness goals that are specifically suited to the individual,” a LifeMAP coach explained.
  • Encourage reflection, which helps increase motivation. After a period of time, take the opportunity to think about any physical, emotional, or social changes connected to the exercise. Maybe routines need to be tweaked to help reach the goals desired, but any improvements can encourage continuation. “We have seen clients who were previously isolated begin online fitness programs and then are encouraged to step up their fitness routines to group activities from the sheer enjoyment of exercise,” one LifeMAP coach noted. Recognizing progress can be inspirational.

With an encouraging and supportive approach, families and professionals can help Autistic individuals create and maintain an active lifestyle that is right for them.

LifeMAP Coaching Programs provide a variety of strategies and resources that encourage clients to participate in a healthy lifestyle including physical fitness, and other life goals. For more information,  please visit the LifeMAP page.

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