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Gym'll Fix it

by Liz Carr

26th January 2011

On the last podcast, we interviewed disabled fitness instructors Mike Hanney and James O'Driscoll. Armed with my usual cynicism about disability and sport, I questioned them as to whether a session at the gym would be of benefit to a stiff little powerchair-using cripple like me? They assured me that 'keeping fit' is for anyone, regardless of their strength and mobility.
Liz Carr pulling her weight
Spurred on by our podcast guests, I decided that maybe now was the right time to start thinking about exercise as fitness rather than physio. And so, I went about booking my first ever session with a personal trainer.  

Prior to this, the only gym I'd ever been in was at the local physiotherapy department. As a young person with a condition that affected my joints and muscles, I spent far too many painful and unproductive hours lifting my legs, "up, two, three, four and dowwwwn". This is where my dislike and distrust of exercise began. I stopped doing physio once I left home at eighteen and have been a sedentary fitness-phobe ever since.

Mike and James reassured me that there are increasing numbers of mainstream gyms with accessible equipment and staff trained to work with disabled people. I was impressed. Yet when I called a couple of these allegedly 'accessible' gyms and mentioned I used a wheelchair, the response didn't exactly inspire confidence. "Ummm, I don't really know if we have anything suitable for the di, for the... I'll get someone from membership services to give you a call," was the standard response. They never did phone back and to be honest, I was relieved.

Their ignorance was the perfect excuse for avoiding a gym full of perky twenty year olds doing squat jumps and lunges all around me. I was intimidated by the thought of wheeling into such a place. Everything seemed unwelcoming to disabled people - from the inappropriately named dumb-bells to the inaccessible step classes. Maybe the likes of me didn't belong in the gym?
Liz feels the burn
I was worried that people would stare at me, that they'd laugh, but most importantly, I worried about what to wear.  

Lycra and I aren't exactly the best of friends and despite the stereotype, I'm one disabled person who doesn't own a single pair of elasticated waisted jogging bottoms. The best I could manage were a pair of jeans, boots and a rather fetching sweatshirt top. I was no vision of beauty in leisure wear but I was ready for action.   

Putting my misgivings aside, I eventually made an appointment at a mainstream gym, albeit attached to the rehabilitation ward at Stanmore Hospital. If I was going to exert myself, it was good to know there was an A&E department within wheeling distance.  

At first glance the gym looked just like any other but on further inspection, I noticed a disproportionate number of wheelchair users, then I realised that some of the fitness equipment was ramped and some even had Velcro straps to secure errant and unwieldy limbs. Still, none of it looked accessible to me.  

My personal trainer was friendly and refreshingly unphased by my unique physique. He handed me a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire and rather than spend the next hour completing health and safety assessments, listing my impairments and detailing my next of kin, all I had to do was tick 6 boxes and I was declared 'physical activity ready'. Hurrah!  
Liz burns 6 calories
With limited mobility, it can be difficult to exercise until you're breathless but when I mentioned this to my trainer, he just nodded and whisked me over to the first contraption - a set of bike pedals that you move with your arms. If I half stood, reached over awkwardly and grabbed on for dear life, I could just about move them forward. He set the timer and three minutes later, the LED display informed me that I'd burned off 6 calories.

As I wheeled about from machine to machine, I noticed that there was a real mix of ages, body shapes and gym wear. There were a few other disabled people there but not a paralympian in sight. No one was laughing or staring – they were all too wrapped up in their own worlds to even notice me. I was a bit disappointed.

The majority of equipment was, as I’d suspected, not accessible, but there were still a surprising number of machines to try. Some I had to  transfer onto whilst others I wheeled up to and remained in my chair while I pulled weights down, pushed forward with my legs or circled my arms around. Once I remembered that my social worker wasn't lurking around the corner re-assessing me as I exercised my care package away, I began to relax, and dare I say it, even enjoy the experience. 
Liz enjoys a hot chocolate
My favourite machine was one you'd associate with 30 stone weight-lifters on 'Britain's Strongest Man'. Here I was, a 5 stone contender for Britain's Weakest Woman, sitting astride a bench and pulling a set of weights just a few millimetres towards my body. After 12 of these miniature bench presses, I was knackered, I'd worked up a slight sweat on my upper lip and it was definitely time to call it a day.

So, after an hour long session, am I now a gym convert?  I certainly found my time with a personal trainer very different to my experiences of physio:at the gym I felt more in control, at times exhilarated and always encouraged. I would go again. As for the exercise I enjoyed most?  That involved me wheeling to the cafe, raising a weighty mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream to my mouth and happily restoring the 36 precious calories I'd lost during my workout.


    • 1. At 12:14pm on 31 Jan 2011, AspireCharity wrote:

      Glad you enjoyed your visit to our gym. Just to clarify, although the building is in the same grounds as the hospital, we’re totally independent of them. The work that we do here, and the feedback we get from our customers, allows us to challenge the leisure industry as a whole when it comes to the standard of accessibility and inclusion – I think we all agree that there is plenty of room for improvement. Hope to see you back here soon. Aspire

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    • 2. At 3:27pm on 31 Jan 2011, Katie Fraser aka AbleGirl wrote:

      That's really good Liz! I use a gym myself near me , and have a personal trainer. He always allows me to do exercise that will allow me to do it within the confines of my osteoporosis and takes regular breaks inbetween, and checks wther I d it right and I have lost weight while doing it and have had a good tick from the specialists that losing weight is good for my condition.

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