Autism and Getting into Exercise: Step 1 Walking

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

Chinese proverb

If you’re new to exercise, or have tried strenuous exercise but found it too difficult, walking is a perfect way to become more active.

Mistakes People Make

When I walk or cycle I occasionally pass people, often very overweight, pushing themselves past the limit with exercise.  They get to such a low point in their lives that they want to desperately change. They feel the harder they exercise the more they’ll lose.  They’re brutal to themselves jogging for short periods, then gasping for each breath. Exercise in this form for a beginner is punishing.  It puts such a strain on an unconditioned body that it could lead to long term injuries. In my opinion, you should only do this if you have a reasonable level of fitness to begin with.  Exercise needs to be enjoyable to be sustainable.

My Exercise Routine

I’ve done some form of exercise my whole life.  At some stages of my life less than others.  But over the past year and a half I have exercised at least five times a week, every single week without fail.  Only stopping for a planned rest and recovery week (allowing for my muscles to fully repair and recover).  I have a week off once every six months but this should really be once every three months.

Before I boosted my exercise frequency, I wasn’t that big to begin with.  I was just in the BMI over weight category, even with some regular exercise.  But over the past year and a half my body and health have dramatically improved.  I am stronger, healthier, slimmer and get tired much less often.  It has completely, without question, improved my life.

I do four types of exercise. All as important as each other. Weight train twice a week without fail (for the past three years), cycling, walking and swimming. I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination.  But have a good level of fitness and get most of the benefits of athleticism by pushing myself quite hard but not too hard.  Even today walking is just as important as all the other exercise I do.

Why Walking is a Good Form of Exercise

I’ve watched countless programs on healthy living and read masses of articles on the subject.  But one of the best pieces of advice I heard was on the radio from a doctor that specialised in exercise.  He said that all exercise is good no matter if it’s strenuous or not.  The best exercise is the one that you can stick to.  The only rule is that you do something that keeps your body moving for a good period of time.  He was an advocate for walking.

Walking is one of the most gentle, natural and easy accessible methods of exercise possible. There is no great cost and it is available to you on your doorstep.  It doesn’t put a strain on your muscles (such as your legs and back) like jogging or on your heart.  It has so many other benefits.  By being outdoors you get the fresh air, time to think and put your thoughts in order, sunlight required to get vitamin D which improves your happiness and releases dopamine which also gives you a positive state of mind.

As amazing as it is, it has a few small downsides.  The main one being that it doesn’t burn a vast number of calories compared to other forms of exercise.  But that is easily remedied.  You just do it for a longer period of time.  So instead of jogging for 30 minutes and then being totally out of breath and in agony you could burn a similar number of calories walking for an hour. Still a bit hard when your starting out, but easier and more pleasant.  Also Instead of walking on flats, walking up hills increases the resistance which will burn off much more energy.  You will naturally pick up your walking pace over the months increasing your calorie loss.  Additionally, some people even attach weights to their legs but I don’t go that far.

Starting Out and Doing it Right

It is always tough when trying something new, like exercise for the first time.  This is especially true when your autistic like me.  You like things the way they are, and take comfort in doing the things you’re used to.  Change is a scary thing, but sometimes change is for the better.  Once you have done it a few times you start enjoying it.  It gradually becomes easier and part of your new routine.  Then you will get to the stage where you will get upset when you don’t exercise.

What to Wear

The beauty of walking is that you will have most of the equipment and clothing required to get started. For the basics all you really need is a good pair of trainers or walking shoes and comfortable clothing.  In the winter an outer jacket such as a fleece with gloves and a hat.  In the summer a cap or sunglasses to keep the sun off your eyes and some sun cream to protect your skin.  I always take a basic backpack and a bottle of water as well.  Once you get into it a bit more you may find you get blisters. This is easily prevented by using methods such as rubbing the areas of your foot where the blisters are located with Vaseline (the kind that’s often sold in small circular tins as a lip moisturisers).  You can also wear two pairs of socks to reduce the friction between your skin and your socks.

Finding Your First Walk

Often the main thing that stops you walking is finding somewhere suitable to walk.  When you go on your first walk a good length of time is about 45 minutes or about 2.5 miles in distance.  The best routes tend to be circular so you don’t have the awkwardness of stopping half way and then turning around walking back the way you came. It may be related to autism but I don’t like to do this.  Mainly because I don’t like to pass the same people twice.  If you are lucky enough to live close to the countryside it is always better to start out on a familiar route.  As you know it is safe and you’re unlikely to get lost.  If not, then it is worth fully researching the area you are going to first and go to a popular walking place with proper maps and signs along the way.

For the best beginner walks there should be plenty of information on the internet giving you all the details you need.  In the UK many council websites are the best starting point as they have very accessible routes.  It is worth starting on the easiest and shortest routes of about 3 miles maximum. Often the easiest routes are those that are accessible for people with disabilities.  As you know the ground will be easy to walk on and there will not be obstacles such as animals.  You may need to drive there or catch public transport but it really is a worth the effort for the benefits.

Once you walk on a familiar route you might stick to this as your regular walk.  Autism makes it easier to enjoy this repetition more than none autistic people which is really beneficial.  But once your confidence is up and you enjoy walking then very gradually start to increase the difficulty and duration.  A good amount of time to walk is about an hour.  This can be kept up for six months to a year.  Then if you feel ready, and want more from it, you can stretch to a greater distance and time of about one and a half hours, then two hours and so on.  The trick is to find that right balance where it is not too strenuous so you want to keep doing and enjoying it.  Against pushing yourself enough to get the real benefits of exercise.

Once you start walking you will start to enjoy exercise which in turn will make you more open to trying other forms of exercise.  I love walking but would not want to do it for great periods of time several times a week. I would be far too bored.  This is where other forms of exercise come in. Different exercise works different parts of the body or the same part of the body but in a different way.  Such as walking and cycling mainly work on the legs but use different muscles.   Doing different type of exercise that you enjoy is the secret to you continuing to exercise for years instead of weeks.  Then you start to see the real benefits.  Such as feeling more confident about yourself, being happier in life and being less tired.  Ultimately taking more calculated risks in other aspects of your life in order to achieve the things in life that you want and deserve.  All of this can be achieved by taking that first stroll which puts you on the right path to succeeding in your life.

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