Julien Pineau Uses the Power of Fitness to Help Neurodivergent Population

October 18, 2023 by
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Julien Pineau’s love of fitness started early. 

In his twenties, he was in Brazil studying Ju-Jitsu and met a Cuban conditioning coach. Every Monday, this coach would put the students through intense, long CrossFit-style workouts, adding partner carries, partner runs, and anything partner to the programming.

Pineau was massacred after every session. He loved it.

Years later, Pineau took the basis of that training to create StrongFit, a program that incorporated sandbags and strong man aspects, in Torrence, CA, and it took off like wildfire. The Barbell Shrugged Podcast stumbled upon Pineau and contacted him to do an interview. 

The guys did a workout first–Pineau put them through the wringer, knocked them sideways, and then did two episodes of their podcast. 

A day after the first episode was released, he had hundreds of emails, and before he knew it, he was traveling nonstop around the world teaching seminars. When COVID almost killed his business–the traveling and teaching became almost nonexistent–a pivot presented itself.

  • Pineau: “Right before the pandemic, I started talking with Mike Ramirez from Divergent CrossFit, the place where I had held my first seminar. Over the years, he was my coach, and he had anxiety issues himself.” 
  • “So at some point, during the three years of COVID, I started to develop this system to work towards anxiety and the nervous system. And out of that, with Mike, we started to see if we could apply that system to autism.”

Mike said he wanted to make a gym just for the autism population, and Pineau loved the idea. Both his wife and daughter were on the spectrum, and he had experience with those who had autism.

  • “I was really interested in developing the system to work on that. I wanted to open other centers as well because you have to see the effects that it has on families. And the fitness industry being what it was becoming after COVID, I didn’t want to stay in that anyway.” 

It became a natural switch for Pineau to apply his fitness system to autism and anxiety. He began to work with Dr. Nasir Ahmadi of UCLA, a child psychiatrist, as he started to shift gears and adapt the system more towards autism. The feedback was extraordinary.

Ahmadi was shocked at the success Ramirez and Pineau had on his autistic daughter–they reached her in a way that doctors at UCLA couldn’t. Ahmadi was a specialist in PTSD and wanted to use Pineau’s system to also battle that, and the two put together a study.

  • Pineau: “I did a beta study on six of his patients. We were measuring resilience to the nervous system, and we saw tremendous value in the types of exercises we were doing. So we started to work together on all the cognitive therapies.”

Pineau explained how the results were measured.

  • “We’re looking at the sympathetic and para-sympathetic ratio. Resiliency, which means your capacity to switch from back and forth. We would show patients videos that had quite aggressive sounds, and for people with PTSD, that has a great effect on them.”
  • “After the video, the patients have an acute sympathetic response, and we measure how long it takes to get back to baseline. Then I do a training session, with the goal to create an acute sympathetic response, but then a vagal response that allows them to come back. And then, at the end of the session, we measure the same ratio using the same aggressive video and sound.”
  • “The goal is to increase their resiliency to stress.” 

Pineau and Ahmadi did this by measuring heart rate, HRV, discoloration of the skin, and pupil dilation, and they realized that this led to both short-term success (shortening length of a panic attack) and long-term success (overall increase in life satisfaction and decrease in stress) in patients.

Photo Credit: Mike Ramirez

Pineau and Ramirez knew they had something special, and Divergent Fitness grew quickly and now trains athletes aged 6-60. Training the kids is a team effort.

  • Pineau explains: “The success or failure goes through the parents. That’s the reality no one wants to accept in the medical world–you have to stop treating parents like they are just helpers. They are part of the solution; when they are anxious, the kid is anxious, and you cannot win without the parent.”
  • “We also want to get to a point where we can train the parents for the anxiety of having a kid with such severe symptoms.”

In the future centers, Pineau plans to include small coffee bars so the parents can be present and watch their kids train and do something they can be proud of.

After about 100 families were training at the facility in Simi Valley, Pineau decided that they needed to open another location to make sure each athlete and family had appropriate attention. The Westlake Village location opened in late September, and previous to the opening, there were already 30 people on the waitlist.

Pineau doesn’t plan to stop there.

  • “There is a big autism community in San Francisco, and we found an investor from that area who wants to make this big. Big meant ten gyms for me, but our investor wants to start as a proof of concept with seven this year, and then from there, we’ll scale up to 100 or so, starting in California,” he said.

Pineau will continue to go to bat for the neurodivergent population.

  • No one wants to train that population–no one does. Everybody stays the fuck away from them because they are overwhelmed and scared of training those kids. That then shows the families that it’s very hard to do, which can cause anxiety within the family.” 

Pineau makes it clear why he will never stop working to bring these resources to the families.

  • “That population needs us, and we have to move the world of autism forward.”

Interested in learning more about Divergent Fitness? Either as an athlete, a parent, or a potential coach? Check it out now!

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