Fitness: getting right to the core

Fitness: getting right to the core

A whopping 78% of disabled people in this country remain inactive compared to 50% of non-disabled people. But, asks Emma Bowler, just how easy is it to get fit, find accessible fitness centres or use what’s available in the home?

A whopping 78% of disabled people in this country remain inactive compared to 50% of non-disabled people. But, asks Emma Bowler, just how easy is it to get fit, find accessible fitness centres or use what’s available in the home?

Often the first obstacle to fitness disabled people face is a multitude of excuses as to why they feel they can’t get fit. Kate Llewelyn, Head of Information at Arthritis Care, says: “People often say they don’t have enough time. For some it’s the logistics of parking, travel, access or cost. Some, certainly people with arthritis, say it might hurt, they think it could make their symptoms worse or that they are in so much pain the last thing they want is to do exercise.”

Mike Lee, a fitness instructor at Aspire, a national charity working with people with spinal cord injuries, says the thought of going to a gym can put people off. “Some people feel self-conscious, lack confidence and are intimidated by their surroundings – they are thinking what will the people be like?”

But the arguments for getting fit are numerous and compelling.

Kate says: “Exercise can improve your range of movement, build up muscles and protect joints. If your ‘core’ is strong it can help with posture, sleep and weight loss. Exercise is also good for circulation, which can be an issue if you don’t move around much.”

Mike adds: “When you are not as mobile you are more prone to illness so it’s good to improve your fitness to help with that. There are also social and mental health benefits, as exercise increases the release of chemicals called endorphins which make you feel better about yourself and it can be relaxing, reducing stress and anxiety.”

Following a spinal cord tumour Jo Short walks with crutches and has a lack of feeling in one leg and in the trunk of her body. When she became overweight she decided to take action. Fortunately Jo lived within reach of the Aspire National Training Centre, which boasts a swimming pool with full ramped access and a fully accessible fitness studio complete with gym instructors qualified in designing fitness programmes for disabled people.

“I had a preconceived idea that gyms would be full of fit people in leotards but at the Aspire gym there are older people, disabled people and non-disabled people. It’s not a showy place.”

Jo found working out in the gym had several positive effects, “I’ve lost three stone. Because I’m fitter I’m not so hot and bothered when I’m walking with my crutches – that wasn’t a good look! It’s not made me walk any better but I can walk further. I also had a really big belly, I couldn’t sit up nice and straight as there was no muscle in it. Using a gym ball I started to build up my ‘core’ muscles; at first I was really wobbly but now I have much more control, and a flatter stomach.”

However, finding an accessible gym is not quite so easy for everyone, which is where the Inclusive Fitness Initiative [IFI] comes in. IFI is working with the leisure industry to ensure facilities are inclusive for disabled people. The initiative focuses on five key areas – accessibility, inclusive equipment, staff training, marketing and policy. When a facility reaches a certain standard they are accredited.

Alex Gibbons, IFI’s London Project Manager, says: “There are 350 accredited facilities nationwide and a number are working towards accreditation. So if a disabled person wants to get fit they should check the IFI website or give us a call and we’ll tell them their nearest facility. It can be quite intimidating for some people to go to a fitness facility but the idea is that if they go to an accredited facility then they will be encouraged because of the training the staff have had.”

When you’ve found a potential gym don’t rush off to buy your leotard and leg warmers just yet. Mike advises: “Go and see your GP first. When you go to a gym you have to fill out a form declaring if you have a heart problem and the like. If you tick a few of the boxes they may need a referral letter from the GP along the lines of ‘To whom it may concern, it’s OK for Mr Brown to embark on an exercise programme…’”

Once you have the all-clear it’s time to visit the gym. Mike says: “Go and see what facilities they have and chat to the instructors – ask them what qualifications they have. It’s important that you have an appropriately qualified person.”

You can then work with an instructor on an exercise programme or you could join a class, for example yoga or Pilates. Some leisure facilities have swimming sessions and fitness classes for older or less mobile people. Or you may be able to work with the instructor and adapt the exercises in a regular class.

If you decide you don’t want to go down the gym route all is not lost. There are all sorts of things you can do at home including online exercises and Wii Fit, or you can use cans of baked beans for weights, do armchair exercises, get a portable set of cycle pedals and give your legs and arms a work out with resistance bands.

Even making small changes can make a difference. Choose to walk if you can, dance to the radio, do the vacuuming and mopping, get gardening, even washing up can help loosen the finger joints!

There are also specialist fitness DVDs. For example, Leanne’s Chair Workout made by wheelchair-user and amputee Leanne Grose, ‘Easy Fit’ by Diana Moran aka the Green Goddess and Arthritis Care Ireland’s DVD ‘Be Active with Arthritis’.

You may find it useful to work with a physiotherapist as they can help you build up an exercise programme for you to do at home.

Finding a fitness routine you can keep going is crucial if you decide to exercise at home where sustaining motivation and distractions can be an issue.

Julianna Fejer has osteoarthritis and had been battling with her weight for some time. When she was told she had high cholesterol she decided she had to do something but she found that she would launch into an exercise “campaign”, do too much, then just stop.

She has now found a regime she is able to stick with. “It’s low level for me but we’re all different. I don’t look fit, I wouldn’t say I am fit but every day I do some sort of walk for 30 minutes. It’s not a power walk but as much as I can do. I do stretches before and after and I also swim once a week.”

Julianna has lost 13kg and finds exercise keeps her more mobile. “I don’t think it’s made a difference to my pain levels but I do have more stamina so I can do more and it’s easier to do things like get up stairs.

“It’s very disempowering if you are living with pain all the time,” she says. “But if I’ve been round the block then I’ve done something. I’m also starting the day outdoors, seeing people, seeing the birds, so I start with a better frame of mind. If I don’t exercise now I’d get stiff, pins and needles and headaches.”

Julianna says the key is finding the right activity, doing the right amount of it and if necessary getting support. “Even if you can only do a little bit, even in a chair – exercise your feet or whatever – do that rather than think just because you can’t go to the gym you’re condemned. Don’t be too ambitious too quickly, if an exercise makes you feel better incorporate it but if it doesn’t then go back and talk to people. Find someone to help you like a physio. I had a negative attitude for a long time but it’s about finding what suits you.”

If weight gain is a problem exercise can help but it’s also a good idea to take a look at your diet to make sure you are not consuming more calories than you can use. This can be an issue for people who are less mobile or inactive. Your GP should be able to advise you with this.

So whether you decide to pump iron three times a week, take up pilates, adopt a fitness DVD or work out with some baked bean tins have fun for a good cause: your health.

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