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I was at the gym.

But I wasn’t there to work out.

At least, that was what I thought.

All my supervisor told me when he sent me a link to an Instagram story was: “Show up. Wear sports attire. Pay attention.”

Okaaay. At least I won’t be alone, since he also arrowed my three other intern buddies to go with me.

“You might learn something,” he added, cryptically.

So, there I was, on a Thursday afternoon, at Elevate Performance Gym on Neil Road, nervously waiting for the session to start.

I went into the session cold, yet it was the most heartwarming and eye-opening experience.

Gym session for special needs

Gym session for special needs
On our way to the gym, not knowing what to expect. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

You see, it wasn’t an ordinary gym session where you sweat it out for an hour and head off after.

We met co-founders Arthur Tong and Nigel Matthiaz, and Arthur explained that every week, the gym runs a one-hour session for people with special needs, usually led by head coach Tammi Lim.

Physical therapy is important for adults with special needs because it helps improve motor functions, keeps them active and engaged and promotes self-esteem.

On top of that, it also allows their caregivers some respite from the 24/7 attention they need to give their charges. Coming for the weekly gym sessions builds a sense of community among the caregivers.

Often, the caregivers would work out together. It’s very wholesome, added Arthur.

He explained that our role at that day’s session was to be the workout “buddy” with an adult with special needs.

Arthur explained: “We use a ‘I do, you do, we do together’ method of encouraging our special students to work out.”

“Oh,” he added, “you need to be firm with them and set boundaries.”

I listened calmly but inside I was lowkey panicking: “What? Be firm? Set boundaries? With a stranger?”

I have had experience volunteering with people with special needs before, but it was always at a distance. I’ve never been this up close and personal with them. Being new to the gym and finding out that it would involve sweat and physical exercise was an entirely foreign experience to me.

All the interns (including me) were initially overwhelmed as Arthur explained the rundown of the session.

Different characters

Different characters
Coaches Tammi Lim and Arthur Tong. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

Even though Arthur prepared us, when the adults with special needs showed up (we had arrived earlier for the briefing), it was still quite an experience meeting them for the first time.

Gwen, 25, was first to arrive with her mum Cassey. Gwen was gentle, smiley and quiet. She was born with Global Developmental Delay, but with more cerebral palsy symptoms, so her movements are a little awkward.

Then came two shy teen boys — cousins — whose caregiver (one of the boys’ mums) was happy to meet us but asked us not to identify them. “I don’t have permission from his parents, you see,” she explained to us, gesturing to her nephew.

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Then 32-year-old Sebastian bounded into the room. “Hello,” he bellowed happily, before barrelling into Arthur for a big hug.

“He’s a hugger,” says Arthur, somewhat redundantly, slapping him on the back, “don’t worry, he’s okay but he can be a bit much at first.”

Looking at the 1.8m Sebastian (I’m 30cm shorter than him!), I suddenly understood what Arthur meant about setting boundaries. Sebastian turned and cheerfully moved towards me. I gave a small panicked squeak before my supervisor stepped in to intercept the hug that was clearly coming my way.

“Don’t be afraid. You just need to be firm with what you’re comfortable and not comfortable with,” Arthur explained.

Working out

Working out
Tammi explaining inclined chin-ups with Arthur demonstrating. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

Before the session started, Arthur and Tammi demonstrated the exercises for the day five stations in total: Rowers, inclined chin-ups, box step ups, dumbbell shoulder presses and a core exercise called the “dead bug”.

We would take turns doing these exercises at five minutes per set.

During the introduction, I noticed how Arthur and Tammi didn’t use technical terms. For instance, instead of calling it a shoulder press, they would say “push the weight up”, and demonstrate the action.

It made it easier for everyone (including a gym newbie like me!) to understand what we needed to do.

Arthur showing how to do the “dead bug”.
Arthur showing how to do the “dead bug”. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

“Remember, ‘I do, you do, we do together’,” repeated Arthur.

Working out alongside the special-needs participants allowed them to get a clearer picture of how to do the exercise. It also motivated them and made it more fun and inclusive.

I was paired with one of the teens and the shy boy would often glance at himself in the mirror during the exercises. It worried his mum because she was afraid he would not focus on the right action, which could lead to injuries.

So we repeated the exercise next to him and told him to copy us.

It took me a while, but I realised that he was doing what many people do; following a visual to learn something new – like how we would watch a YouTube video rather than read an instruction manual.

We’re not all that different, I thought to myself.

By the end of the hour, we were all sweaty and breathless; it was a most productive gym session!

Meeting the caregivers

Meeting the caregivers
Arthur keeping a close watch with Sebastian on the rowers with his buddy in close attendance. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

After the warm-down stretches, I chatted with some of the caregivers.

Sebastian’s caregiver Magdelene explained to me that her son has Global Developmental Disability.

She said: “I enrolled him into this gym because we’ve known Arthur from (sports non-profit) RunningHour. Knowing his passion for helping people with special needs through sports, it was an easy decision to join this gym.”

Magdelene added that coming for the sessions has benefitted Sebastian in many ways, not just physically.

“One of Sebastian’s main challenges is his core and balance. The gym, as well as the social interactions during the sessions, have made him grow to love the exercises. Not only that, I can see his confidence in himself growing, making him much more independent in simple tasks.”

Arthur debriefed the group while Tammi led the cooldown exercises.
Arthur debriefed the group while Tammi led the cooldown exercises. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

Cassey, Gwen’s caregiver, said: “Gwen has been going to the gym for more than 10 years, I see great changes in her like strength, understanding and coordination. When Arthur introduced his gym to us, as well as the concept of “I do, you do, we do together”, it was good because I get to do it too, knowing I need to keep up with my strength because I’m in my 50s.”

She added that these sessions were not just beneficial for Gwen, but for her as well.

Tammi helping Gwen on one of the stations with her mum Cassey.
Tammi helping Gwen on one of the stations with her mum Cassey. Image source: Zakeerah Mohamed Zain

“You find sanity amid all of this. I find a lot of comfort in seeing other caregivers exercising with their child because I know they are on the same boat as me. When our children do funny things, we would laugh together with them as a way to keep going. Coming to a place where parents understand each other’s child’s issues is something unique about this gym.”

Everyone is different

I started the session nervous and worried, but I was genuinely sad to see our special-needs friends go after the hour of working out together. Throughout the session, there was a sense of camaraderie and good-naturedness that left me with a warm feeling inside.

After we said our goodbyes to our workout buddies and their caregivers, Arthur gathered us for a debrief.

He said: “We may think we have seen all kinds of people on the spectrum, but the moment you meet someone with special needs, it’s a whole new experience.

“Every individual is unique in their own way; it makes it seem like the first time you are encountering someone with special needs. That’s why we need to always keep an open mind, be gentle and firm, but always be ready for a surprise!”

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This gym session may have lasted only an hour, but the perspective I’ve gained from the experience will stay with me for a long time. It is heartwarming to see such programmes promoting inclusivity for the disabled community in Singapore.

If you have friends or family members with special needs and would like to join these sessions, or if you’d like to help with volunteering as a workout buddy, send Tammi (@tim.tamss) or @elevateperformancegym a direct message on Instagram to find out more!

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