Exercise is important for everyone, but it is especially important for people who are high functioning autistic/aspergic like myself. Luckily I realised the importance of exercise from being a teenager and have exercised since.
Choosing the right difficulty level
When thinking of exercise it is easy to fall into the trap of only thinking about high intensity and strenuous activities. Such as running, boot camp, athletics and football. Whilst this type of exercise is incredibly good there are many types of low intensity exercise that are almost as good but more enjoyable and easier to do. Whilst still offering many of the benefits that more intensive exercise gives.
If you are the type of person that loves sports like running, football, climbing or rowing then you will already love exercise and reap the benefits it gives. Probably to a much greater extent than I have achieved. But if you are like me and find high intensity exercise too difficult then lower intensity sports and activities is the way to go.
I believe that any sport at any pace is better than doing nothing and the hardest part is actually doing that sport and exercise for the first time. If it gets a bit tough stick with it for a few weeks and keep trying before deciding to give it up.
My experience with sport
Like many people with high functioning autism I was poor at many of the sports in school. I was bad at football and always picked last (which I hated like everyone would), I was awful at hockey, basketball and any team sport.
It wasn’t until I was about 15, when we played games like badminton and table tennis, that I found some sports that I liked (apart from swimming which I have always enjoyed). I was not the best in the year at badminton and table tennis but I was certainly one of the best players. These are ideal sports for people like me who struggle with social communication as there is little need to talk and you are playing against the other person rather than being on the same team.
Around the same time my cousin, who was my best friend, started to do some weight training and was very strong and muscular for his age, so I started doing this with him which I enjoyed and have been doing it on and off ever since. Again I never did it to the level where it was an obsession but just enough to get some of the benefits.
In my late teens I could see many of the benefits to sports from people like my sister and cousin. They seemed to have this unlimited amount of energy and were never tired, where I was tired all the time, and they looked much physically better from exercise. I knew I could never join a sports team or club as I could not talk to people and was socially anxious. Instead I chose to do exercise I could do alone, which I have done ever since. This includes bike rides, weight training, swimming, badminton with my sister and walking. I have done other things such as joined several gyms and spent several months doing martial arts (with a friend from university) but these things caused too much social anxiety so I gave them up.
Choosing the right exercise
Choosing the right exercise at the right level of intensity is the most important thing you can do. It is the difference between enjoying what you do and looking forward to doing again against dreading it. If you push yourself too hard you can easily put yourself in pain which will make your hate excercise rather than enjoy it.
The best way to find the right exercise is to try many different sports. If your autism means you are a quiet, shy and not very social (like me) then there are still many sports out there that you can do that are individual and do not involve social interaction. Or if your autism means you love to talk, then taking part in a sport where other people are as enthusiastic as you will give you a common interest with others. Either way I believe there is a sport and exercise for every person and often it is just finding that right sport for you and giving it a try.
I always start a sport off at a very low level of intensity, where it is almost too easy, and I will very gradually build up the intensity so I don’t get put off the sport by doing too much too soon.
Sports I recommend
Sports that I do and the benefits they bring to me are:
- Walking: I used to hate walking and could never understand how people could get pleasure from it until I tried it. Now it is one of my favourite forms of exercise. For me the benefits are:
- Being out in the fresh air but still being alone
- Time to put my thoughts in order and think about what I have achieved in life and what I want to achieve in the future
- Getting out in the sun which offers its own benefits such as increasing endorphins and being essential for being healthy
- Seeing the world and nature and how it changes over the seasons
- Seeing some amazing scenery
- Being a gentle exercise so I can do for an hour up to a few hours each time
- Cycling in the countryside: offers benefits such as
- Being out in the fresh air
- Getting out in the sun
- Seeing the countryside
- Being fun (such as cycling fast down hills)
- An easy form of exercise that does not put too much pressure on the muscles and joints
- Weight training:
- Having a good physique and body shape
- Helps with social acceptance
- Less likely to get bullied
- Do not get tired as easily in every day life
- Helps to reduce anxiety or body consciousness in places like swimming pools
- My most fun exercise
- Works every muscle in the body.
- Improves physique similar to weight training
In addition to these individual benefits exercise brings to me overall benefits such as:
- Being reasonably fit so I am able to do all the jobs required in life (which are extra difficult with the limitations of autism such as sensory overload which causes tiredness)
- Able to play with my children and taking them to places such as swimming, walks and bike rides
- Looking better so I am more socially accepted as I have a good body shape
- The benefits last many years if not a lifetime (such as a healthy heart, strong muscles, bones and joints)
- Small changes add up to a big difference.
- Enjoying one type of excercise leads to enjoying other exercise
- Getting outdoors and seeing the world, where as I naturally want to stay inside due to my high functioning autism
- Adds something new and different to my life
- Feel better in myself and am much more confident. Which shows to other people and therefore other people are more likely to want to get to know me
- Being more motivated and not quitting work when things get too tough
- Being open to try new things: for example by getting outdoors and enjoying the countryside I have recently been brave enough to take my eldest son camping
- Increases endorphins so I always feel good and happy after completing excerise
Linked to excerise is eating the right food in the right amounts. When you first start out you find that you tend to eat more food to make up for the calories that you used to complete the new exercise. But once your settled you normally find that if you exercise a lot you tend to want to eat better food. So you do not cancel out all of your hard work. So good exercise can lead to a healthier diet which can make massive improvements to many aspects of your life.