Written by Cerys The Chameleon
The stale stench of the changing rooms, lit with furious fluorescent lighting that felt like lasers when I looked at them, mixed with the laughter of my peers ricocheting around my brain, it was a recipe for sensory overwhelm.
I found the whole experience of getting ready for Physical Education exhausting in Secondary School, let alone the participation. The unknown of what activity we were going to be doing each week, the fact I couldn’t catch a ball, was overly clumsy, couldn’t co-ordinate my movements in the way I imagined lead to complete avoidance. I would hide in the toilets. Frustration festered and self esteem sabotaged every time I was picked last for a team, or ridiculed for not being sporty in the slightest. Clumsy Cerys, Butter fingers, names I still remember. This made me feel like exercise was an experience I would never enjoy. Fast movements, proprioception difficulties, dyspraxia, teasing – all reasons why I believed exercise to be excruciatingly painful and humiliating.
So how did I go from absolutely abhorring all forms of exercise to regularly weightlifting at the gym?
The gym is an experience I thought I would hate, the whizzing of machines, the lighting, the music the people. Gymtimidation is a real thing. I joined my local gym after watching influencers lifting weights and their physique and form were just incredible. Being the chameleon that I am, mimicking and observing behaviours, my journey into joining the gym was fuelled by wanting to fit in somewhere, wanting to be like everyone else.
I found a quiet gym, in my local area, only five minutes drive from my house. I asked to join and my Mum came with me as I didn’t have much independence or confidence. From there I had a consultation and was asked about my goals. From the offset I disclosed my diagnosis to the the owner and was actually surprised at their knowledge. I do feel the environment you exercise in is important. They created my routines, went through them with me until I understood and instead of sticking to the routine for 12 weeks I could stick to it as long as I liked, I was in control of when we brought in new movements.
I also learned when the quietest times were. I don’t go to a mainstream gym, so there are times of the day when there are little to no people at all. I take my headphones and play music that I like to escape into my little world.
What I didn’t ever consider when I began the gym was how good weight lifting is for self regulation. When the barbell is on my shoulders, it almost has the effects of a weighted blanket – it feels really comforting and grounding. The feeling of my muscles contracting are a nice sensation, a reminder that I’m alive. The sound the barbell makes when the plates hit the floor after a lift soothes me, plus the feeling of achieving that lift is euphoric.
When I began the gym and I was highly anxious I would incorporate mindfulness into it. Every push I made I was pushing something away that I no longer wanted in my mind, anxiety, past memories, hurt. Every pull, I was pulling something I wanted, more confidence, independence, health.
It’s also helped me massively to have a structure and routine. To set goals to work towards and feel a bit more control. Being autistic I often feel out of control due to the sensory overwhelm endured and difficulties keeping up with daily life.
The gym and weightlifting have become one of my safe spaces. I never ever thought I’d be capable of lifting, especially with my lack of co-ordination and fine motor skills. In the right environment, with supportive and understanding trainers who have knowledge and with determination you really can achieve anything.
I probably won’t ever take up weightlifting competitively. The moment there is pressure is the moment I crumble. Plus, sensory food aversion means that the nutrition side can be challenging. However, through weightlifting I have founded not only physical strength, but mental strength after the majority of my life has been spent feeling fragile and weak.
My next goal is to start independently travelling to the gym and is something I am looking forward to when it is safe to do so. Without weightlifting I feel I would not be able to cope with emotional dysregulation and my anxiety and depression would heighten.
If you are autistic and you too feel strongly about disliking exercise, please know that it may not be the actual exercise, but the experience and trauma associated with it like school experiences. I truly believe there is a form of exercise out there for all people. Whether that is walking in nature, or playing basketball in your own back garden. The self regulation benefits are so valuable for our day to day lives.
Thank you for reading.