Just because it exists…


I spent an hour this afternoon working with one of my young adult athletes. He’s in his early 20′s, has been exercising with me for the better part of a decade, and is proficient in some really complex lifts including the barbell clean and press and power snatches. Really cool, advanced stuff.

We exercise twice weekly at a commercial gym/fitness center/spa/sports facility/clothes retailer/Physical Therapy/Unicorn Factory. Not my ideal choice, but they do have space, medicine balls, and actual weights. I am split between being exceedingly proud and disgusted that my athlete is the only one in the entire place (at least at the times we tend to be there) that is actually exercising in a safe, effective, planned form.

The gym/spa/space station has every machine imaginable. Need a half-ton hunk of metal that takes up the room of a small car and only flexes your calves? They got it. And it’s cousins.  The problem is that as a society we, as a general lot, have very little knowledge about what real fitness entails. People walk into a gym and see big, shiny, relatively impressive machines, immediately deciding that these are safe and a good idea.

Before I get any further into this textual rant I will add that this does come around to autism and special needs.  First, a short history;

Though pulley and cable exercise systems did first appear around the early 1900′s, they were not wide-spread until the 1970′s, when bodybuilding (the single pursuit of building muscle mass) replaced physical culture (more of a balanced approach to fitness entailing strength, balance, gymnastic movements, and physical performance). Machines, because they isolate specific muscle groups, became popular with the bodybuilding culture and eventually, through marketing and commercial success, became everyone’s idea of what “working out” was.

Without a long, multi-faceted explanation of human evolution, physiology, and biomechanics, suffice to know that our bodies do not develop optimally in machine-based training. It does not allow the deep stabilizer muscles to do what they need to do, and machines often place the body in a fixed position that is not joint-healthy. Think about how you move, and how young people move throughout the day. Does ANYTHING they do appear similar to how exercise machines work?

Here are some things we NEED to do:

- Squat

- Pick things up

- Throw stuff

- Reach overhead

- Pushing things

- Pull things

- Move from one place to another

Machine based exercise, particularly for the autism and special needs population, accomplishes none of this and may be detrimental in the process. Consider also that any competent fitness professional, PE instructor, Coach, or Exercise Physiologist did not study for X amount of years, spend a few more actually working with clients, and attend seminars and continuing ed so they could learn to put you or your kid on the pec machine first and the leg extension fourth. These, incidentally, are the idiots who ruin the fitness profession internally and the perception of it by the rest of society.

Last year I was consulting in a high school located in a state that starts with “C” and ends with “T.” I was there to assess the Adaptive PE Curriculum. I was later informed that I had “made faces” when shown the current protocols. The kind, enthusiastic, completely misguided Adaptive PE Instructor was using an entirely machine-based approach because “Someone donated them to the school.” Parents, teachers, I beseech you. If someone generously donated a 50-gallon drum of rat poison for the school lunches would you scoop it on into the chicken soup?

My recommendations for the program obviously conflicted with the existing practice, but I’d rather a group of teenagers with autism also not have joint and lower back pain at age 17.  Watching the teens go through each machine station for 2 minutes was horrendous. It was both unsafe and unproductive, done with good intentions, but awful results. Have they changed it? I’m actually not sure, but will find out next week.

In the U.S., we once had a very prominent physical culture complete with movement, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles. In this, the computer age, we are deluded and coerced into thinking that technology is the most effective means of accomplishing every goal. If, however, we want healthy bodies that move well and perform optimally, both for the autism and neurotypical population, we need to do the following:

-Animal-based movements

- Squatting and Lifting (safely and correctly with increasingly heavier objects)

- Pushing and Pulling (safely and correctly with increasingly heavier objects)

- Hopping, Tumbling, Skipping, and Climbing (because they build coordination, stamina, and body awareness)

- Remember that just because they made it, or put it in a gym, or try to sell it to you, does NOT make it a good idea.

Live Inspired,



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