Rucking: The Treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder

My three-year old’s occupational therapist prescribed rucking as heavy work to positively channel his sensory seeking behavior. Let me tell you how we got there.

It’s Just A Phase, Right?

My youngest son has always been a little different than other kids. And I’ve gotten to know many children over the years working as a camp counselor, babysitter, teacher, coach, and now, as a mom of three.

Ryan plays harder, gets dirtier, and climbs higher than most kids he is around including his older siblings and friends. We have special locks on the doors at home to prevent him from escaping (again). This is not all a bad thing. In fact, we’d like to argue the contrary. He’s an active kid who loves being outside. We all know and love them – you may have a child like this or, chances are, you were one yourself. Jason and I speculated that Ryan’s intense behavior was due to his “wild child” personality, being “all boy”, his birth order, being terribly two and then a threenager…lots of theories and conventional wisdom.

Time passed by and I noticed it was taking longer for Ryan to meet certain childhood developmental milestones and his behavior was starting to disrupt our lives:

  • He was biting and scratching a lot at school and home.
  • At mealtimes, he rarely ate when others were eating and then devoured his food once others had left the table.
  • He began refusing to wear any clothing or shoes. We live at the beach in a warm climate so lucky for him (and us) he can go without clothing or shoes (or both) a lot. That said, there are still plenty of occasions when society demands that we wear them.

The meltdowns were nuclear and unpredictable. We dubbed him the terrorist and the entire family began to fear him waking up in a bad mood or not wanting his diaper changed. Still, we thought – this is just a phase. We’ll suffer through, things will get better, soon he’ll be older and other lies we tell ourselves to get through difficult times.

Houston, We Have A Problem

Enter Ryan’s preschool teacher who is originally from Scandinavia. Jason and I refer to her as The Saint and respect her teaching methodologies wholeheartedly. We had a parent teacher conference in the Fall of 2019 and it was clear that she also had concerns about Ryan’s behavior. She had recently attended a Montessori conference and wanted to share some characteristics of sensory seeking children that reminded her of Ryan.

  • Constantly touching everything: objects, surfaces, people
  • Constantly moving: jumping, running, bouncing, rocking on chair legs
  • Prefers to be barefoot or naked
  • Crams food into mouth
  • Loves messy activities

New Labels, Old Cures

From the little research I’ve done on Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), “sensory seeking” is one of several trending diagnoses and not without controversy. I was skeptical that this was another justification to medicate kids, many who are young boys who simply need more active time at school and to be outside more in general.

But the more I read and communicated with Ryan’s teacher, I learned that one of the main prescriptions for sensory seeking children was “heavy work” along with other common sense parenting strategies. Something about it helping to make a neurological connection and some other stuff that is above my pay grade. I was pleased to find that the classifications within childhood development seemed more precise than a one size fits all attention deficit problem. I decided to make an appointment for Ryan to meet with an Occupational Therapist (OT) to find out more.

Here’s how my first encounter with the OT went:

OT: For children who are sensory seeking like your son, I recommend a lot of heavy work.

Me: Exactly what does “heavy work” mean?

OT: Well, it can be a lot of things like putting weight in a backpack, jumping on a trampoline, carrying heavy things…

(Me smiling to myself): I can’t believe she just prescribed rucking for my son.

Rucking as Heavy Work

This was, of course, welcome news. A bright, young OT was recommending rucking – putting weight in a backpack and taking a walk – as a type of heavy work to help my child better process input from his body and environment. I already knew getting outside and rucking was a great activity to do with my children. We’ve gone on Donut Rucks, Pumpkin Rucks, Milk and Cookie Rucks, Smoothie Rucks, Mud Rucks.

What I didn’t realize was that rucking was actually being recommended by OT’s across the country. I found this out by sharing the ironic experience of my child being prescribed rucking in a GORUCK parents Facebook group, folks who already know about rucking and its benefits. Ironic because ‘rucking’ is a household word for us here at GORUCK HQ in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Here is a great list of Heavy Work Activities that a GORUCK parent shared with me. Number 1 on the list is “Carry heavy items” which is what rucking is all about. And yes, in case you were wondering, heavy work is also known as the things we used to do back before screens, social media, and organized everything started making us soft, angry, and bored.

Sandbags for Studying

One parent told me that his family uses GORUCK sandbags as a way to keep their child focused and engaged while studying. His elementary school student cleans the sandbag, puts it on his shoulders, and then squats while practicing spelling words. Others confirmed that rucking and lifting heavy things at GORUCK clubs helped their children. Not surprisingly, rucking did their adult bodies and minds a lot of good too.

To sum it all up:

  • Ryan was a tyrant, and still is.
  • Heavy work makes it better, OT prescribed.
  • I’m a lot more comfortable with heavy work than I am shoving pills down my son’s throat, so that’s a win-win.
  • Added bonus, heavy work like rucking is also good for people of all ages.
  • If rucking can help to weather the storms, I’m all in.







  1. Adylerach says:

    This post is beautiful. More OT/PT/Psychologists, Family Practice docs, etc.. should be prescribing these and other modalities to help treat sensory and social um.. ?disturbances – can we even label our children’ behaviors as such? It is from these sensitivities that extreme climbers, special ops candidates, writers, physicians, and other game changers are born. It’s definitely more difficult during the childhood years to focus all that energy, however, I see the opportunities rise up for many as their energy is focused into an activity – such as rucking. Thank you for sharing your family’s journey. I hope I run into you all at an event. ~LRR~

  2. Chris Kelley says:

    My wife told me a few months ago the she pulled 4 or 5 two liter soda bottles filled with water out of our son’s (16yo), school backpack. Was he developing OCD, hoarding issues? She was a bit concerned until we asked “why?”. “I like the way it feels”. So for Christmas, Keegan received a Rucker with a side order of a 20# ruck plate. They no longer have lockers for the students so, he carries his ruck all day, everyday from class to class. Keegan has Asperger’s.

  3. Johanna Robbins says:

    Oooooh!! My hubby is an OT who is stuck in adults but has a heart for kids! I cannot wait to share this article with him!

  4. Mary Ellen Pollak says:

    Emily, thanks for sharing your journey with Ryan. He is a very special boy, whom I really enjoy and have seen your challenges with him. I am excited for you to learn about what will help him and that there are others who are on a similar journey. Sensory processing disorders come in many forms and you are fortunate Ryan has such an attentive, wise teacher who could identify his behavioral characteristics and get you headed in a helpful direction. Wonderful that you have an OT who knows this disorder and knows ways to help. It is not a quick fix as you know, and it is great that you are starting now to help Ryan learn life long necessary skills to help him.

  5. Candy Keane says:

    It would be interesting to see Ryan rucking down the road with the Sunday crew, rather than being the wailing siren that announces our little parade ?.
    Hope it works to channel that energy into something positive.

  6. Mike McCaffrey says:

    Thank you for sharing Emily. I think “heavy work” should be the prescription for a lot of issues. It makes me hopeful that a teacher and an OT didn’t just say he needs to be on medication.

  7. Jeff says:

    Great blog on your son. He reminds me of my step son who was a challenging child as well. We’re too found help from an OT (an many other professionals). He did heavy work along with being brushed (which also helped), sat on a wobbly seat, went to schools where the teacher spoke into a PA system that made the sound non-directional, and the list goes on . . . He also took ADHD medications that helped him and may have hurt him, but got him through school.
    He’s 27 now and still has some challenges but lives a productive “normal” life. He is gainfully employed, has made (normal) friends. And is happy. He gets up most days and carries a heavy bag through his favorite neighborhood to get breakfast and visit friends in favorite shops prior to going to work. Thankfully he’s wearing clothes!

  8. christian g. says:

    You had me at Montessori. I’m sure you know this, but Discovery School is Montessori. #babyKai loves it, like LOVES it, and they celebrate play and activity. Its also close to HQ! Her energy is also off the charts, exhibiting many of the behaviors I read here. I’m both excited and terrified to see how this plays out. Imagine when these two know each other 🙂 Anyway, good luck, and if you haven’t yet, check out Discovery. We aren’t just kimda happy there, we are 100% happy there. Cool side note – the other parents are cool.

  9. Yeah! Awesome entry. ‘Heavy work’ reminds Ryan’s brain that he has a body, too. That kind of ‘spinning up’ sensory seeking behavior can detach a person from their physical self and the weight literally helps keep them ‘grounded’. I love that GORUCK has a natural ‘in’ in this part of the kid world. I have a young client on the spectrum and come spring I am proposing that we leave the office and hit the street for some of our sessions. I was thinking Ingress and with a ruck. I have my Echo teed up and ready to go. Although, I am rucking large beautiful river stones in the high desert at the moment instead of plates:). Go Em!

  10. This is dead on. My son is on the autism spectrum, and one of the things that calms him down is a combination of carrying heavy stuff and hard work. He’s on his high school swim team this season, but when that’s over he and I are going right back to regular rucking. He does so well when we just throw some weight in a backpack and he goes to town with me. Plus, he loves doing it. We get a chance to chat and just enjoy being outdoors together, even if it is just him talking about what his favorite video games characters are and whatnot. it calms him down and he sleeps better, always a plus.

  11. emily says:

    Hi Maxime! So good to hear from you. Two little boys! When they get older, we should have them do another France/Florida exchange with our boys.

  12. Emily E Free says:

    Rucking really is life changing. Our 11 yo girl rucks a 10 lb weight (min) along with her water bladder. Doesnt seem like too much, but she only weighs 45 lbs! Nights are especially difficult for her, but a good 2-3 mile ruck before bed is huge. It enables her to lay down in bed to sleep. Didn’t know this was prescribed, but I will keep this in mind to add to her IEP if she ever returns to school. We are enjoying homeschool for now!

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