You became a personal trainer because you wanted to help people live their best, healthiest lives. We definitely understand the motivation. During your time as a trainer, you may have realized that there is an under-serviced population that needs special care when it comes to fitness: those with special needs. Your tactic for some of your able-minded clients may be “tough love,” stoic firmness, or peppy motivation. But you know you need to change your angle when working with clients who have down syndrome. Here are some strategies we suggest:
Having a set routine is best when working with clients who have Down Syndrome. Those who are differently abled, intellectually speaking, can feel uncomfortable or even afraid if they don’t understand what’s about to happen. A workout routine is important for anyone. However, any trainer or “health nut” will say that eventually your client will hit a plateau. That means you’ll need to change things up. We’re not saying don’t do that. We’re just saying ease your client into the new workouts by incorporating small changes into the routine, subtly, a little at a time.
If your client with Down Syndrome gets a ride to your gym with their parent or legal guardian, you can ask their ride to help you make the routine a seamless transition by introducing it during transport.
Here’s what we mean:
- When getting into the car, the driver could say, “We’re going to work out!”
- While in the car on the way to the gym, the driver could play a workout playlist.
- After the workout is finished, the driver could give your client a healthy snack.
These are all components of building a new habit: trigger, habit, reward. (The announcement and music are the trigger, signaling the transition into the workout routine. The workout itself is the new habit being built. The reward is the healthy snack at the end.)
Of course, the workout itself should have some kind of routine, with lots of announcements from you as to what’s about to happen next. Here’s a suggested routine to start you off:
Warm up with a song.
During this time, you can put on some music to move to while instructing your client to reach for their toes, raise their arms in the air, etc. In addition to getting them warmed up, this helps remind them about the body parts they’ll be working out during the routine, which can help them follow your directions more closely later.
Exercise the core.
Core exercises are a great way to help your client stay grounded in their body, and as an added benefit, it helps keep behavioral meltdowns at bay.
Spice up the cardio.
If you find your client has a particular aversion to running (which, most clients do, are we right?), you can make the routine a little more enjoyable by spicing up the cardio with jumping jacks, jumping on a mini trampoline, doing the elliptical, pedaling on a stationary bike, skipping, and more.
Deep stretching is a wonderful way to cool down. It’s also a great way to signal to your client that the workout is just about over — and that the healthy (hopefully protein-packed) snack is on the way.
This may seem like we’re repeating ourselves here. (And that would be kind of fitting, wouldn’t it?) However, we’re saying that repetition of even minor details, like particular phrases, movements, songs, inflections, and settings can help you make your time with your client meaningful, motivational, and successful.
Every client is different. You may try a friendly teacher’s voice just to discover that your client feels annoyed and like you’re talking down to them when you use it. We suggest taking some time to get to know your client, so that when you do implement repetition in your sessions, they’ll make the desired impact.
If you have a desire to work with clients who have Down Syndrome, it’s likely that you know someone who is differently abled in this way — maybe it’s even someone really close to you. You may think that because your motivations are pure and you have experience interacting with children and adults with Down Syndrome that you’re immune to impatience.
We’re sorry to say that this isn’t the case.
Everyone has good days and bad days. Say, you couldn’t get to sleep that night. You were running late, so you had to skip breakfast. Then your client comes in and wants to tell you the same story they’ve told you at the beginning of every session you’ve had with them. Every single one. You know what your response should be — it’s the same every time too. But you’re just not feeling up to it today.
You’re only human. You’re going to make mistakes. But these interactions — these vital repetitions — are key to building a new habit and making your client’s workout routine successful. To help you in these moments of weakness, here are some tips for being more patient:
You probably feel most like yourself when you’re exercising. That’s because you’re fully in your body during these times. It’s also important to be in your body when you’re doing some less strenuous too, like driving your car, doing the dishes, or walking from room to room. Just take a second to release where you are, what you’re feeling, and why you’re feeling it.
Focus on your breathing.
Another great method of centering yourself is to focus on something constant, something you do without having to think about it at all: breathing. Just giving your mind something else to focus on, especially during the times when you feel particularly irritable, can calm you down and make you more patient.
Pause before reacting.
You can’t help the way you feel in response to something, but you can help the way you respond. It’s easy if you’re not being mindful to snap at your client or talk to them with an attitude, neither of which are helpful to either of you. Before you say anything, just pause. It may feel strange to you, but in practice, it doesn’t seem as awkward as you think to the person you’re talking to. Just wait, see if your knee-jerk thought is what you actually want to say, and if not, don’t say it.
Want to Work With Clients Who Have Down Syndrome?
Are a personal trainer who wants to work with clients with Down Syndrome? Our Strong Education certifications can help prepare you to do just that. They can also provide you with the credentials you need to put your clients and their caregivers at ease, letting them know they’re in good hands when they’re with you. Sign up for our discounted certification course today.
Strong Education teaches personal trainers, parents, and professionals how to adapt fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities through our online special needs certification course.