Jack’s Fitness Journey

Lockdown hasn’t been easy for many of us. Sudden changes in day-to-day routines, alongside the curtailment of social events and missing seeing our friends and family alongside new contingencies and ways of living, it’s been a tough time. Lockdown has been especially challenging for those who are living with autism. It’s known that changes in routine can trigger extreme anxiety, so the Covid-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for people with autism and their families. 

18 year-old Jack Cresswell from Partridge Green, helped by his mum Michelle and supported by his dad Steve, family and friends, has found an activity which has helped him enormously through the upheavals of the past few months; something which Michelle and Steve hope will end up becoming a lifelong skill and healthy routine. He has started on a personal fitness journey, with the guidance of Henfield Leisure Centre Personal Trainer Aaron Le-Flay.

Back in March, Jack’s school closed and his routine was thrown into disarray. All his favourite things to do (for example, his complete love of watching trains, wherever and whenever he could) were impossible to enjoy any more, he couldn’t go out or meet his friends. It’s hard to explain Covid-19 to an autistic teenager, to make sense of the topsy-turvy world where his everyday routine had disappeared overnight and his highly-focussed hobbies were impossible to follow. He missed his friends and, like many, many other teenagers without Jack’s more complex needs, he started to spend a huge proportion of his day playing computer games. 

Michelle was a regular at Henfield Leisure Centre before lockdown and like many of us recognised how much exercise helped her mentally and physically, as well as giving her a focus and some much needed ‘me’ time. She approached Aaron with an idea; would he be prepared to take Jack on as a client; a young man who could be challenging in different ways, but equally, if not more, rewarding? 

Aaron didn’t hesitate and Jack began his training programme. Although Jack was willing to join in and curious, the process was by no means straightforward! He had always preferred screen-time to physical activity and, when they started the programme he found it difficult to deal with basic exercises such as squatting, his posture wasn’t great and it was hard for him to focus, even for short periods. However the routine of the sessions, alongside Aaron’s patient and simple instructions which he repeated calmly but with a gentle insistence and encouragement, helped Jack to focus, listen and learn.

“I could see that Jack needed to feel good and be proud of himself,” said Aaron. “He’s just like all of us, we all need to feel a sense of progress, achievement and pride – getting fit is such a great way of building self-esteem, the buzz of the endorphins after you’ve finished a good session also help! I have had my own fitness journey from being very unfit in a sedentary job and it is always exciting seeing people build in confidence as they realise what their bodies are capable of, and how it makes them look and feel. Jack has been no different, although my approach had to change a little to fit in with Jack’s goals; his autism doesn’t allow him to appreciate the bigger health benefits, so it had to be about the numbers – squats achieved, or weights lifted.”

Aaron has been a qualified personal trainer for 10 years since giving up his job in retail management to pursue his love of fitness. He runs PT sessions from his home gym as well as PT, gym referrals and classes at the Leisure Centre. He knows more than most that absolutely everyone can benefit from getting fitter, in fact Henfield Leisure Centre is very friendly and a great place to start your fitness journey. 

Jack’s mum, Michelle, explained more. “Lockdown was hard for Jack. Nine hours  a day in the house with no access to his familiar carers has been so tough and the focus of fitness really has got him through this difficult time. His physical health has improved so much and he loves spending time with Aaron. It really has been a life-saver for us and we are so pleased to see Jack grow in confidence, his posture has improved and he is incredibly proud of his own progress. I truly believe that exercise is imperative for our good mental health; I am so proud of the resilience Jack has shown, with the help of Aaron he has been able to walk a little taller.”

Jack’s love of consistency and routine has been a real asset, he enjoys learning the techniques of each exercise and loves to know that he’s achieved more repetitions, or progressed to a heavier set weights. Aaron’s encouraging, step by step approach has enabled Jack to focus on the positive of what he can do, rather than the negatives of what he is unable to do, giving him a sense of pride. The focus is always on how far he’s come and aiming even higher. Exercise has improved his concentration, as well as helped him to reinforce some healthy routines.

“I notice that Jack is now much more enthusiastic for physical exercise and much less lethargic, it really has given him energy,” said Michelle. “During lockdown he joined in every one of Aaron’s Zoom fitness classes and even set up his own weekly classes, it was amazing. Aaron has inspired him, he worked out his own exercise plan and we had family and friends from as far away as Australia joining in Jack’s ‘Cressfit’ workouts in their homes!”

It’s hoped that the next step for Jack, once he finishes school in 2021, will be a big move to Brighton for college, where he will live with some supervision, but more independently and with other young people. Leaving home is a huge step for any teenager, but Jack’s family can be sure he’s starting his journey to adulthood with some extra pride and confidence in his abilities. 

Jack’s fitness journey hasn’t been easy but he’s a brilliant role model for us all, showing that consistency and routine always gets results. His tough lockdown has resulted in a huge positive; a life-long love of fitness and a new confidence. I asked Jack what he loved about his classes, and how it made him feel. “Aaron has been supportive and kind to me and I like coming to classes. Without him I wouldn’t have such strong muscles!” Well, what more does anyone want?!

Emma Osman

Henfield Leisure Centre welcomes everyone, whatever age, ability or fitness level. You can get a free GP referral to improve your physical or mental health; just pop to see your GP or nurse. The first two referral sessions are free, including an assessment and induction, you’ll be given a tailor-made programme and each session after is just £4, with a ‘buy four, get one free’ offer. They offer tailor-made memberships to fit in around your life (please note that due to Covid-19 restrictions, gym sessions are no longer drop-in and need to be booked in advance). 

Membership for concessions, senior citizens, students and those with special needs is £25 a month. Call 01273 494984 for information or go to https://www.henfieldsportscentre.co.uk