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9 Ways To Make The Gym A Safer Place For Neurodivergent People

Most gyms are not set up in a way that is supportive of neurodivergent needs and despite millions of neurodivergent people using gyms, they are barely catered for.


With more people being diagnosed every year, this has to change.


Over the last 20 years, autism diagnoses have increased 787% and ADHD prescriptions have increased 800%.


The changes won't be huge but can have a huge impact.


Neurodiversity represents a diversity of thought, learning styles, and information processing.


Having a gym environment catering to a variety of thinking, learning, and processing styles creates a net positive environment fostering growth and mutual support.


How to Make Your Gym Neurodivergent Friendly


Educate Your Coaching Team


Having a staff well-versed in neurodivergent information will help your staff treat neurodivergent people with empathy and respect.


Here are some cool people to follow on Instagram:

@neurodivergent_lou

@elliemids @weareunmasked

@drbendybrain

@burritos_and_adhd


Here are some cool books:


Here are some cool podcasts:


Few coaches are educated about neurodivergent conditions such as autism or ADHD.


Often, neurodivergent people find the gym environment difficult, are liked less by the gym community compared to "normal" people, and often feel coaching is more of a burden than a positive. It shouldn't be like this.


Sensory needs are a huge part of this difficulty.


Clothing being wrong, or too much chalk on someone's hands can cause physical pain to some people.


Shutdowns and meltdowns are common in the sensory hell that is the gym. If you are not aware of what a meltdown or a shutdown is, I've got you.


A meltdown or a shutdown is when a (usually) neurodivergent person is completely overwhelmed with sensory input and either has a meltdown or completely shuts down and can't function for as long as multiple hours.


Here is a great video about meltdowns:




Here is a great video about autistic shutdowns:


I hope to write more content on how to handle a gym meltdown.

Future me! I hope you did this!


There needs to be more education on how neurodivergent people think and communicate differently from neurotypical people.


There needs to be more discussion about the links between non-neurotypical people and hypermobility, posture, and exercise adaptations. This is another topic I hope to explore soon.


Trainers and nutritionists need to know more about the high incidence of food allergies in neurodivergent populations.


Dyspraxia should be factored into gym designs and health and safety procedures as dyspraxic people are more likely to fall, and are more likely to get hurt and this could result in legal hot water.


Trip hazards must be dealt with, equipment needs to have a place that isn't "the gym floor." The gym layout shouldn't switch around all the time so dyspraxic and neurodivergent people can navigate the gym more effectively.


As part of your onboarding process, make sure you can provide your coaches with the resources to help them make the gym floor as safe as possible for neurodivergent people.


Low Sensory Demand Times


The gym is a loud, brutally sensory place for many neurodivergent people.


Many autistic clients report having to go for a nap after a gym session, not because of the training but because of the high sensory demands.


Another reason for post-gym fatigue is masking. Masking is when someone acts in what they perceive to be a more socially acceptable way and hides their true self.


For many, this is an act that rarely drops as:


1) autistic and neurodivergent people tend to be held in lower regard than neurotypical people


2) they've been told they are different and weird when they've behaved in their 'true' way, making it unsafe for them


If you cannot relate to the above, try to act and like someone completely differently from how you normally would and imagine having to do that all the time in public.


As a neurotypical, it helps me to think of the world as far more intense for the neurodivergent person.


Every noise is magnified.


A million conversations are happening at once which are nearly impossible to distinguish between.


Barbells are slamming and while neurodivergent people often love loud music, it has to be on their terms.


Low Sensory demand times would feature the music being down or off. Or you could have some cool silent disco thing going on.


Any loud machinery or fans would be turned off if possible. Shouting would be minimised as would dropping bars and weights.

Numbers could be capped at these times.


Lights would be dimmed if the building is very bright, fewer lights could be on and the colour of the light could be changed to warm tones as opposed to the brightest light possible.


I'm going to use an acronym now.


SEND is short for Special Educational Needs and Disability.


SEND-friendly gym inductions could be performed during these times, low sensory demand classes could be run and educational posts could be designed to promote these sessions and help the gym-going public learn about neurodivergent people.


If a gym wanted to go the extra mile for their neurodivergent clients they could have a sensory room with different styles of light, some weighted blankets, and heaps of stimming/fidgeting toys to help people regulate and relax.


You could sell memberships for these times, and potentially hire out the sensory room to make a little more cash on the side.


Your gym will be known as one of the few to cater to neurodivergent people and you are making the fitness industry a better, more accepting place by implementing some of these ideas.


Gyms are a neurotypical place full of neurodivergent people trying to cope. We can help them!


Safe Space To Escape


I envision this to be like a fire assembly point but for one person whose internal alarm is blasting, who may be on the verge of meltdown or shutdown, or is needs to escape the gym environment for a while.


This could be a room with dim lights, bean bags, and some stim toys. This room could be used for less formal consults and check-ins with neurodivergent people and those who would prefer this kind of environment.


If your gym can't provide a dedicated room to escape, consider allowing any consult rooms, staff rooms, or spare rooms to be used for sensory escape.


If no rooms can be provided, consider having areas of the gym with little to no equipment where people can go for a little breathing room. Feeling less closed in can help someone on the brink of a meltdown.


If you run a private studio, you may have a safety word with your client, and if they say it, the coach takes 5 minutes or however long the person needs to have a calming few minutes.


Giving someone space (assuming they are safe) can be immensely helpful in meltdown and shutdown situations.


Failing all the above, stepping outside or a coach knowing when to step outside with a client can be a great option. If the gym can provide seating for this, even better.


I've never seen the above implemented at any gym. Maybe a gym will be a trailblazer and make this happen. If you know of a gym that provides some of what is discussed in this section, please let me know.


Sell Ear Buds/Noise Cancelling Ear Plugs


Neurodivergent people often find gyms too loud. High-quality noise-cancelling earbuds may be a popular product.


Maybe we should stock some at Heavy Metal HQ and make an online store. Once again, I hope the future me is listening to these ideas!


Different ear plugs block different amounts of sound. People have different preferences and may need multiple sets.


Anyone who needs or struggles to function without earplugs will likely leave the gym without training or have a bad experience if they forget them.


Having them onsite is a well-prepared, meaningful gesture.


Here are a few different brands you may consider selling:



Sell headphones and/or have headphones to rent


When a neurodivergent person needs headphones, they might NEED them.


Neurodivergent people are often sensitive to noise which they often mask with very loud music of their choosing.


The absence of the headphones means they suddenly have more triggering sounds to process meaning workouts are often impossible or multiple times more stressful.


Selling and having rental headphones solves this problem.


No one will have to go without them, the gym would make a profit, and more people would be happy smashing out their sessions with their chosen sounds in their ears.


Provide Both Powder and Liquid Chalk


There are two types of gym chalk:


Powder

Liquid


Neurotypical people don't tend to care about which one they use.


Neurodivergent people often have a strong preference in favor of one type and a hatred for the other.


By providing and stocking both you allow someone to make a choice based on their preferences rather than necessity.

And by selling both kinds, you could make a bit of profit too.


Provide People With Gym Etiquette Rules To Abide By


Many neurodivergent people struggle with the unspoken rules of certain environments, especially when the environment is unfamiliar.


Uncertainty is the anathema to many neurodivergent people. Many neurodivergent people don't respond well to it at all.


Many neurodivergent people struggle with the rules of social situations like being on the gym floor.


Help these people by clearly explaining the rules.


You can help everyone from neurotypical beginners to neurodivergent athletes by providing information about gym etiquette around the gym, as part of a welcome pack and online.


Here are some good things to clarify:


• Where weights go

• Where to warm up/stretch

• How to sign in and out of the gym

• Changing room etiquette

• Gym floor etiquette like reserving equipment, cleaning down, and putting weights away

• Any specific rules that apply to your gym or that are unusual


And probably loads more.


It is all about giving neurodivergent people black-and-white rules that don't require interpretation.


A very common thing in fitness is "Just don't be a dick!" or some variation of this. This will provoke more questions than answers in the brains of many neurodivergent people. It gives no clarity as to what "being a dick" means.

Many neurodivergent people will have 6 million questions firing off at the very vagueness of this rule.


They don't want to break the rules and when the rules are too vague, many people would prefer not to put themselves in that situation so either don't sign up or leave the gym.


Give your neurodivergent people clear, concise rules or define your vague rules which look good on social media to provide people with a less intimidating gym environment.


We know we love that, because it will mean more people are lifting weights, more neurodivergent people will join the gym and we can further spread the good word.


Have A Team Who Are Fantastic At Gym Inductions & Tours


I'm not sure what it's like outside of the UK but over here, we suck at gym tours.


I don't mean towards neurodivergent people, I mean inductions in general.


A typical gym induction involves someone wandering around and pointing at machines. Gym tours should create excitement and provide a great insight into how to navigate the gym best.


A great tour isn't a list of your equipment, as while useful to some, this doesn't give an entry point to most people.


A good induction or tour will be tailored to the individual beyond essential safety information.


If the person is extremely nervous? These are people who can help you out. Here are some resources if you don't know what to do.


Have you never been to a gym in your life? Here is a nice, well-presented workout template, we'll discuss things in a week, in two weeks, and in one month to see how you are finding things.


A seasoned athlete?


Great. Show me the exercises you need to be able to do and I won't waste any more of your time. Also, the fire exits are here, here and here.


Neurodivergent athlete? What do you need access to? How can we make this a safer space allowing you to train as hard as you need to?


Neurodivergent beginner?


Here are all the gym rules with lists of things you need.


Here are a few exercises to be getting along with, oh and there are 2 alternatives to each just in case someone is in the way and it makes you want to leave the gym and hide immediately.


Have an INCREDIBLE induction and tour service. It will be a main pillar in creating great relationships with your members, and you can tailor your inductions to neurodivergent and neurotypical alike.


A good induction takes away uncertainty and answers questions people don't know they have clearly and concisely allowing them to take action, be excited, and get started immediately.


Be relentless in training your staff or yourself to deliver incredible inductions. Do not suck at them.


You'll have more people signing up, a better gym community, better retention, and a better gym environment designed for a wider variety of people to succeed in the gym. Goddammit. It would be trailing a blaze towards making the fitness industry a better place.


Keep Members Up To Date


Many neurodivergent people don't dislike change. It can feel as if small changes are bringing the walls of their reality crashing down but feel as if society dictates they shouldn't react to the internal explosions whatsoever. 


I understand the idea, and the words that form them, but I have ZERO idea what it must feel like. 


I know if my son (a non-verbal autistic) has to sit on the other side of the car on the way to school, he won't be able to function. Even if someone has wonderful communication skills, being caught unprepared can take a neurodivergent person days to recover, especially as many neurodivergent people are very close to max stress levels all the time.


They need time to plan for change, to process what they need to do differently, and how to change their day accordingly. 


Members should be kept in the loop as much as possible about changes to the daily running of the gym. 


If the gym is holding a powerlifting competition, tell the members across via every medium you can. 


If you can have a screen in the gym displaying the latest news in the gym, make sure this is up to date.


Be on it with your socials so everyone in your gym can plan appropriately. 


Many neurotypical people have workouts ruined because something has changed in the gym because they can't handle it at the time.


Imagine how many sessions are abandoned in the UK alone daily because the gym isn't communicating with its members appropriately. 

This doesn't have to be this way. A daily update or a breakdown of the week or month ahead would be great and easy to do. 


Anything to keep people in the loop is beneficial, will contribute to client retention, happiness, and wellness, and make your gym a better place. 


Numbers


15-20% of the UK population are neurodivergent and this number is probably underreported because many people don't know they are neurodivergent.


That is 13 million people in the UK. This is higher than the number of people with a gym membership in the UK (9.6 million people) and far higher than the number of people regularly attending the gym.


In my home city of Leeds alone, there are approximately 160,000 neurodivergent people.


This is a huge market for someone to step up and champion neurodivergent fitness. 


45% of neurodivergent people have lost or left their jobs due to being misunderstood.

I bet the number of neurodivergent people who leave a gym because they feel out of place and misunderstood is extremely high. 


This doesn't need to be the case!


Accommodating neurodivergent people is called being 'neuroinclusive' and while many gyms will claim they already are, I can tell you this is unnecessarily rare.


It is time to continue the march toward neuroinclusivity. It's time to champion the presence of neurodivergent people in the gym.


Some other ideas you could explore:

• Clubs and classes designed for neurodivergent people

• Gym merch that doesn't have a label

• Links and resources on hand for professionals specializing in neurodivergent people

• Booking system for certain popular pieces of equipment so help people to guarantee they can get a session in 


Thanks for reading!


Chris K

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach



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