Six Myths About Inter-generational/Inclusive Fitness and Physical Activity

by R. T. Eady, M.Ed, NCC, Ko~Sha~Rey Rhythms Therapeutics
Oftentimes, when I speak at a conference in the USA or present my 3-Bs (Breathing, Balance and Bi-Lateral Coordination) seminars, I begin with a demystification of what Tai Chi is doing to bring body, mind and spirit together in a movement meditation. All the while underscoring why these holistic considerations are so important for both ends of the age spectrum (as well as special needs groups). Curiously, we find ourselves in a culture that simultaneously promotes and glorifies fitness while restricting access to quality physical education and good information on holistic, "nature learning" principles.
I’ve dented soapboxes and made some deep footprints scooting around the country and professing "recreational" therapy play more of a part of the educational and therapeutic curriculum for youngsters, elders and other differently-abled (such as those on the autism spectrum). I frequently remark to friends, colleagues, random strangers on street corners: "my professional position is that of a border-running, bridge-building advocate between the generations, therapists, health practitioners, care-providers, designers and educators.

Myth # 1: Children “Naturally” move with Ergonomic Finesse

A neurotypically developing toddler can perform a perfect squat. Feet planted firmly on the ground, head aligned with the spine, knees slightly out, and torso at about a 45 degree angle. A four year young child can get up from the floor or out of a chair with perfect ergonomic finesse. (That is head and pelvis positioned for economic energy use.) Four years later, a child has difficulty squatting and rounds the back to pick something up off the floor. This may be an indication of some weaknesses in the major muscle groups, lack of trunk stability, and a few other less-than-desirable physical issues. Is this movement deficit supposed to happen? Or is there another problem?

Movement, including strength, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and endurance, is a set of skills that must be continuously taught and reinforced as a child grows. A comprehensive read through the available research will show a high incidence of movement deficits in young people that supplant virtual activity for the real thing. Movement deficits refer to poor ability to utilize and control muscular systems. It may be evident in gait patterns (walking, navigating stairs), poor posture, or trunk stability. Sedentary lifestyle patterns (lots of sitting with little variety in physical activities and a lack of vigorous physical exercise) can exacerbate the movement issues in both neurotypical, aging and differently-abled populations.
Years ago, when children more frequently spent time on playgrounds, demonstrating the magical power to fall, have it hurt a little, and get back up, movement skills were calibrated through random and energetic play. Jumping, hopping, skipping, climbing, pushing, pulling, throwing, and all variations and combinations of these patterns ensured further development (and integration) of both the muscular and central nervous system. Yet in the case of elders and special needs individuals vigorous physical play is often missing from the daily routine. Physical play skills require development through teaching and practice. I often describe my method as based on the Koshare (pronounced ko~sha~rey) Pueblo Indian Therapeutic Sacred Clown technique which uses a semi-chaotic system of role-reversals to show children how to re-acquaint elders with "play." Children, in essence, learn new abilities to then re-initiate physical playtime with elders.
Myth # 2: Sport Delivers Plenty of Fitness
Fitness is general, and can be applied to many different areas and situations in life, from daily tasks to athletic endeavors. Sports are highly specified and the skill sets within them do not generalize or “cross over” much to other activities. Most of my continuum of movement participants aren't playing sport, nor do they want to. Ever watch a little league baseball game? The kids stand in the field, then get up at bat three or four times, sit on the bench, and maybe throw the ball five times (and that’s if they are in the infield). Then the adults tell them how much exercise they got as they all drive away from the playing field facility.

Individual sports (martial arts, yoga, tennis) are good, but realize - these too - are highly specific endeavors. Think of sports (individual or team) as branches that reflect the roots on a tree. The roots are general fitness and trunk of the tree is your overall physical activity performance. Sports steer you toward asymmetry even at the highest levels. That's why coaches know how to best employ fitness staff to consistently correct imbalance (at least from a physical perspective) with highly-skilled single sports athletes.

Myth # 3: Elders are Inclined not to Be Active
It took me about a dozen times of trying to ski to decide I needed to snowboard instead. The first couple of times I fell down a lot. Then I got progressively better. Eventually I felt competent enough to do some of the moderately difficult slopes. Then, once I knew I could handle some intermediate runs, I decided it wasn't for me. I had the benefit of (youthfully learned) skating and (later-in-life-learned) surfing to draw from. I knew the initial adventure would be fun, because I had never skied before. Yet, as we mature, we generally begin to slant away from things that we are not really to good at or have little experience with. Consider how many variations of physical fitness elders, (or differently-abled children) typically have access to. Maybe sports? (see above) A machine-based weight training program (boring with great opportunities for injury and compensatory movement pattern development). Treadmills?
Many elders and people with special needs have an aversion, or gravitate away from vigorous physical activity because:
A) They resist new activities and task demands that are out of routine
B) Motor deficits can make many of these activities difficult especially when taught improperly
C) Movement has never been introduced in a way that is fun or meets the needs of the individual
D) Exercise program has not been paired with reinforcement including behavior-specific praise or secondary reinforcers (music, access to preferred activities).
Any of the above could be factors. My participants find physical activity fun and reinforcing because they are presented with new and dynamic options for regular fitness and exercise.

Myth # 4: Some Kids (younger and older) Just Can’t Learn to Exercise
Breaking any skill down to smaller increments helps the learner to master each step. Similar to math, science, reading, or any other cognitively-based skill set, movement requires planning and appropriate implementation. I’ve had students learn sophisticated Tai Chi movements by breaking the exercise down into four discrete steps. While mastering each step, the participant is also growing stronger and more confident. Most often, the environment is less than conducive to the student succeeding and this is why the would-be athlete “fails” or quits.
In Eas-i-Chi and its younger sibling "Toes Knows", we do all sorts of animal movements, kick and throw balls, catch and pop bubbles and balance things on our heads, hands and feet. It is new and exciting for many of my participants. A few take more time to find it reinforcing. The key is addressing the major movement patterns (pushing, pulling, bending, rotation, and locomotion) and finding a way to teach it while having fun. Often, behavioral and cognitive issues have to be addressed with individual students. I’ve started fitness programs for seniors and children that include a 20-second “exercise” period followed by five minutes of reinforcing activity. Over time, as tolerance for the new activities increase, we can engage in fitness longer and more regularly. Saying someone can’t exercise is akin to saying “Some people just deserve a higher likelihood of Alzheimer's and Type II diabetes.”
Myth # 5: An Exercise Program Needs to be Highly-Structured with Costly Equipment
The play aspect of fitness is something that we are desperately missing, both in youth and adult fitness. There really should not be much difference (other than volume and intensity) between kid and adult physical activity programs. With my participants across the age and ability spectrum, we’re performing the same movement patterns I would include in my own training/play sessions. Many PE and fitness programs are far too rigid without accomplishing the most critical goals: getting people to move well and enjoy doing it. Teaching in a structured manner is important for developing the pre-requisite and basic movement skills, but movement exploration and discovery is the ultimate goal.
While video gaming systems have been excellent for enlivening the multi-generational environment and bringing more grands and great-grands together around popular virtual games such as bowling and tennis, keep in mind, costly devices and video gaming system “fitness” programs are, in a manner of practice, the antithesis of what actual fitness should be. Standing on a board and watching a video places the individual askew to real 3-D physical activity and is purely recreational at best (no matter what the box tells you). It is not true: in fact, working in a "2-D" flat-screen environment and having images flash by the eye in about 30-frames per second can be disorienting as it can reinforce a virtual set of physical realities. (Ever wonder why you feel a bit out-of-synch after playing a virtual game for any length of time?) Machines (treadmills, elipticals), most of my fitness professional associates and I have concluded, are oftentimes simply expensive shoe racks.
The vast majority of equipment I use is inexpensive, can fit in the trunk of a car, and provides much more fitness benefit than any system sold on various multi-media outlets. A short list includes: cobblestone walkways, TerraSensa balance enhancement pads, rope, soap bubbles, slack-lines, exercise and medicine balls. See this link for more details:

Myth # 6: A program of Inclusion for the Differently-Abled is Complicated
I often refer to my inter-generational movement program as O-2-B-4 Again or the Dance of Life in order to define it both broadly and simply. In part it is to get the attention of people who think of physical activity as a grim business involving dumbbells and suffering. Yet what happens when most four year olds of differing abilities are introduced to rhythmic sounds; they dance. That's because movement plus rhythm tends to create an anxiety-reducing state. It stands to reason: our bodies and our lives are ordered by rhythms great and small, so rhythm feels great and does us good.
Also, one of the easiest ways to bring inclusiveness into a program is to schedule a 20-minute Inclusive Path excursion/walk/tour with a 3 year old, an 83 year old or a special needs individual.
This relates to the point that our health is significantly influenced by our beliefs and emotions. By striding between these two generational positions or conversing with someone that has to put a tremendous effort into appreciating what is taken for granted by others (such as independent mobility) a lot can be absorbed related to living and learning in the earliest, latest and most challenged facets of life. For instance, latching an arm or taking the hand of a wee one brings us into the flow and tempo of lives and experience that can help us appreciate what energy means to livelihood -- be it an overabundance or a conservative amount. Seeing first hand what it means to have to always look for the access ramp or look at the world from a three-foot vantage point can also be a big eye opener.
Have we gotten a bit wayward with our consideration and approach to fitness? Major media clangs the “obesity epidemic” alarm bell every few years and currently underscores the latest Let's Move endeavor championed by the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Will it work? It encourages physical activity programs for our nation’s youth and professes to help raise a healthier generation by creating accessible/easy to facilitate physical activity programs. I would argue (and I have given Let's Move lots of input) that we need inclusivity beyond the next generation. We need to vigorously include seniors and special needs populations. While Let's Move represents a reactive approach to deal with the possibility of certain types of heart disease, cancer, Type II diabetes, postural distortions, inhibited cognitive function and lower self-esteem, the proactive approach (regular fitness), opens the gateway towards new abilities, confidence, and long-term health. Which path are you poised to take?
inclusive path

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Comment by Juliet Robertson on October 10, 2010 at 9:25am
Thanks for bringing this post to my attention, Randy. You made some interesting and valid points.

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