Objects vs. Objectives Revisited
One of the central concepts in Autism Fitness programming is Objects vs. Objectives. Recently I overheard a discussion between two parents regarding use and access to a treadmill for one of their teens on the spectrum. Now why a treadmill? Because of the current overwhelmingly bad information and programming our gym/fitness culture provides, several fallacies exist:
1) Running in and of itself, is a great fitness activity
2) Treadmills, because they exist, must be valuable pieces of equipment
3) Because running is “cardiovascular” exercise, it is ideal for individuals who are sedentary and/or do not participate in other fitness activities
4) Because many other people do it, running is a great way to get fit
The reality is that running is a very specific fitness activity which, for a good number of participants, causes as much or more harm than it does good. Running (distance), requires a certain amount of baseline strength, technique, and ability. Since many individuals on the autism spectrum already have deficit levels of strength and often gross motor issues, I would argue that running is a really poor choice as a singular fitness activity.
Good fitness programming addresses individual goals. Developing a greater level of strength in the major muscle groups and movement patterns should be the basis of just about every program. Why? Because developing general strength provides both the foundation to perform other activities (daily living and otherwise) and serves as injury preventative as well. Developing healthy levels of strength as a foundation for other endeavors just makes sense, and it does not work the other way around, meaning general strength (pushing, pulling, squatting) is not enhanced by highly specified movement (running, riding a bike, etc.) The only time highly specific activities will build strength is when little-t0-no activity was performed prior. Suppose a 14-year-old has never done any physical activity and is started on a treadmill program with a goal of jogging for 5 minutes. He/she may eventually reach that goal, having increased their capacity to jog for up to 5 minutes. This accumulation of skill, however, is going to have minimal carryover or generalization to any other activity or task.
In addition to being outright boring for most, running or “treadmilling” does not address the low levels of low body strength and hip flexibility found in the majority of our population and, simply by default (and the fact that there is a high rate of sedentary lifestyle), the autism and special needs population. You can do all the treadmill programming you want, you’re not going to develop hip flexibility and probably exacerbate existing issues.
So why do all these treadmills and cardio machines take such precedence in gyms? Isn’t it because that’s what will get us fit and what we’re supposed to be doing? Gym are businesses, designed to turn a profit. Cardio machines require no explanation from a knowledgeable/reputable coach or trainer, can be placed in row after row, and, compared to free weights, medicine balls, and other more effective equipment, have a relatively low intimidation factor. Now a good medicine ball runs about $60. A treadmill works out to about $1k. The difference is that with the medicine ball you have to know a little bit about fitness programming and movement. The treadmill is easy, it dictates what you’re supposed to do with little to no thought on the part of the trainee. The medicine ball, Sandbells, fitness ropes? Better choices absolutely; more fun, versatile, effective, and able to be used towards individualized objectives, but again, you have to educate yourself a little bit about what goals should be and how to use these objects effectively.
We’ve taken much of the “E” out of “PE.” The trend of using team sports or cardio equipment as the basis for Adaptive PE is a simply-because-it-exists and mostly thoughtless approach. Neither develops foundational levels of strength or movement patterns, nor do they lend towards individual goals. Keep in mind also that fun and enjoyment of physical activity should be programming goals, and using cardio machines “just because they’re available” lends nothing towards creative and individualized ways to help make moving fun for young people with autism.
Of course then I’ll have the occasional response of “Shawn loves to run. He’ll go and go and doesn’t want to stop.” Great. Build it into his programming. It should not be the sole source of movement activity in his programming.
“But it’s hard to introduce new things”
Yes, it can be, as it can be to achieve anything worthwhile. Which is why knowing the How’s and Why’s of programming is essential and why I created several informational products on the subject.
Remember that just because it exists does not make it inherently good or bad. Having a basic working knowledge of fitness and movement will make choices regarding equipment, programming, and goals much more clear.