Sitting is the new smoking, a physio told me recently. Forget 40 being the new 30! Or black being the new – um – black.

I see a lot of overweight special needs people. Have you noticed it? Not easy admitting it out loud, is it?

But now that obesity has become an urgent mainstream problem, we can be open about the long-existing reality of obesity among special needs people, blighting their quality of life and shortening their lifespan.

It scares me, not least because the creep of weight gain with ‘sedentariness’ is a very real issue in our household.

Many of us are becoming increasingly (and uncomfortably) aware that a sedentary lifestyle worsens your health. And this is even before you factor in conditions that might already predispose you to a range of scary health outcomes.

However, in all of this, we have more agency to do something about it than we realise.

A little bit goes a long way

I recently read an article about the health benefits which flow from building regular movement into our day.

Not sport. Not the gym. Not even going for a run.

Simply moving more often.

I gave myself a rare pat on the back.

I’d never describe myself as “sporty”. In school, I usually tried to schedule music lessons into my sports periods. However, incidental exercise has always been part of my life. As an adult, I’ve just been more deliberate about it.

Whether taking public transport wherever possible, walking instead of driving or being a bit more “analog” and less “digital” in my life, I’ve tried to keep active.

I’ve modelled this approach to, and adopted with, my kids over the past twenty years. The more I learn about the negative health consequences of inactivity, the gladder I am that the solution is really quite simple.

Just move.

Or, to spin off the gloriously self-indulgent King Julien from the “Madagascar” movie franchise: “You’ve got to move it, move it!”


The Fitbit buzz

My daughter’s endocrine condition and the steroid medication she must take to manage it predispose her both to weight gain and to getting deep vein thrombosis if she spends long periods sitting. Recent blood tests have shown that Type 1 diabetes is latent and just waiting to present itself.

Keeping her as healthy as possible is a prime directive in my life.

Unlike her parkour-loving brother, she is not naturally inclined to activity. She’s content to sit for long periods doing jigsaw puzzles, or having “me time” on her iPad.  There’s nothing wrong with that in itself.

But for her own sake, her sitting needs to be punctuated with physical activity.  Hence, the usefulness of the “Fitbit buzz”.

 I’m always amused when I notice that we’re looking at our Fitbits at the same time. We’ve just been alerted by the Fitbit buzz, a little sensory reminder at 10 minutes to the hour to get up and move, to achieve at least a minimum 250 steps of movement before that hour ticks over to the next.

It’s surprising how quickly fifty minutes of sitting (or even standing, with little movement) can pass. The Fitbit buzz is a good reminder for us both to take a break.

This can be for something as simple as getting up to get a glass of water from the sink.
Or it can be a prompt to go out for a five-minute walk.

Something is better than nothing.

It’s helping us to achieve the incidental – and regular – movement that is so vital to our health.

Going the extra mile (or five hundred metres!)

“Park a little further from your destination! or “Get off the tram a stop early!” are familiar exhortations. This is something I’ve built into routines with my daughter. If I’m taking her somewhere, I park a little way down the street, so she has to walk a little further than a few steps to the door.

“But this just takes up more time in my day! I’m so time poor!” I hear you wail.

Actually, it rarely takes more than five to ten minutes. Have you actually tried parking a little further away from your destination? More often than not, you’ll find it easier to find a parking space. That means no lost minutes circling around looking for a parking space, or waiting in traffic to get into one. Once you’ve parked, you have the benefit of a short walk.

That’s where the “we have more agency than we realise” bit comes in. Agency includes allowing yourself time. You can do it.

And you might just find you save time, too.

An added benefit of parking a bit further away is that my daughter familiarises herself that little bit more with the surrounding area of wherever we’re going. And it introduces her to alternative routes to her destination.

This all helps her develop her sense of independence and comfort with trying new things. And it broadens her knowledge of geography in familiar stamping grounds.

People with autism, like my daughter, can find it extremely daunting to take new routes or go to new places. Stepping outside their comfort zone can be frightening when there is no other choice.

By slowly, deliberately exposing my daughter to new ways of doing things, she and I improve her resilience and her ability to manage change.

And the take-out is…?

If you are the parent or carer of a special needs child or adult, you need to build movement into their routine.

Parking further away than usual when you go out or getting off a tram or bus a stop early are two options. It could be talking out the washing one item at a time and hanging it up. It could be walking up the escalator instead of standing still.

Just starting with something will help you work out what fits into your day, your family make-up, your geographical location, your financial situation. Keep it simple.

Our young (and old) special needs family and friends have enough to deal with. Let’s not add health risks from an unhealthy lifestyle to this if we can help it. We owe it to them.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!