Gym'll Fix it
26th January 2011
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?
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!
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.
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.
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