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Gym Class Heroes

One year ago, Jennifer Hise was desperately seeking an outlet for her son’s aggression. Sixteen-year-old Robert has autism, and the McKinney mom wanted to find some sort of program or activity that would mitigate Robert’s energy. “When he’d get frustrated, he’d hit walls,” she says.
It was at a Halloween carnival resource fair that she first met Daniel Stein, founder and personal trainer at Special Strong, an organization specializing in health and fitness services for kids, teens and adults with special needs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Stein knew a thing or two about aggression. As a teen, he suffered from depression, mood disorder and ADHD, which sometimes led to unwarranted outbursts. And though he saw lots of therapists, doctors and counselors, even took doctor-prescribed medications, it was a basic weight bench, 15-pound barbell and an adjustable weight set his parents gave him that helped most.
“It was the most effective therapy I’d experienced,” Stein says. “Working out helped my ADHD symptoms. I was able to focus better in school, and the endorphins helped alleviate my depression and improved my mood.”
Dr. Joyce Mauk, CEO and developmental pediatrician at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth, says exercise is not just good for the body but the mind as well. Research shows physical fitness makes all people happier, calmer, more flexible, more focused and better equipped to handle stress.
“And for those with developmental delays, there is an even higher instance of obesity so physical activity — something they can do lifelong — is extra important,” Mauk says.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area isn’t short on options. There are lots of organizations that help kids, teens and adults with special needs get (and stay) active. Flip to page 26 in this issue to find our directory of listings for baseball, swim, gymnastics, cheerleading, martial arts and more. But there are also a handful of organizations that tailor personal training and group fitness classes to kids and teens with disabilities.
Stein and his team train kids as young as 6 who have autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Asperger’s or other diagnoses using one-on-one personal training sessions or adaptive boot camps.
“Everyone gets a custom workout that combines strength exercises with endurance and brain integration in a 45-minute session or class,” Stein explains. “We work the imbalances.” That means that a program for someone who uses a wheelchair includes exercises that flex the glute muscles. Someone with cognitive delays might be asked to close their eyes and lift the left leg and right arm simultaneously “to engage the right and left hemispheres in the brain,” he says.
Philip Miller, owner of Crull Fitness in Richardson, takes a similar approach with his clients with special needs in hourlong sessions or group challenge programs. He integrates a light cardio warmup with everyone then caters exercises to each individual — ranging from simple conditioning to strength training — for kids age 9 and older, who are considered moderate- to high-functioning.
And Special Abilities of North Texas, a nonprofit organization in Lewisville, offers a health and fitness program that helps adults with special needs improve their overall health with, among other things, individualized physical training exercises.
While there’s no denying the health benefits associated with exercise and structured programs like these to help make fitness part of someone with special needs’ routine, too much of even a good thing can be bad.
“A child with disabilities should be given the opportunity to exercise five times a week,” Mauk says. “But a fair amount of that should be obtained in a fun play setting.”
That’s true regardless of the child’s age. Incorporate physical activity into everyone’s lives. Splash around in the pool together or race each other around the block in addition to enrolling kids in an organized fitness program or class.
The Hise family has made Robert’s twice-aweek cardio and weightlifting sessions a family affair. “He thrives on the routine and loves teaching his sister and I the exercises at home,” his mom says. Not to mention that the regular workouts have definitely helped her son channel his aggression. “He’s able to take breathing strategies he’s learned in the gym and use them to help him when he’s frustrated outside the gym. Instead of acting out, he makes fists with his hands and takes deep breaths to calm himself down. The change is incredible.”