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Tom Shakespeare

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Tom is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. His non-fiction books include Genetics Politics: from Eugenics to Genome and The Sexual Politics of Disability.

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Fighting the fat rolls

29th June 2009

My physiotherapist is pleased with me. Attentive readers will remember (a) that I became paraplegic in August 2008 and (b) that I now work part-time with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Well, I went back to see my physio recently, after an interval of a month during which I had been working away from home. I didn’t think I’d made any progress, I explained, even though I did my exercises dutifully almost every morning: stretching and kicking my legs, opening and closing my knees and, on a good day, squeezing my glutes as if my life depended on it.
Tom Shakespeare doing his exercise routine
Having gone through my repertoire of twists, flexes and tenses for her, to my surprise she reported that I had definitely improved. Apparently, I could now do moves which weeks ago were impossible. I was undoubtedly going in the right direction, and pretty soon we would be able to practise some standing up. Most gratifying. "But what about this?" I asked, pointing to the small roll of fat around my midriff.

Now, I have to put this in context. Us achondroplasics look to be on the chunky side at first glance. Short fat legs, with prominent backsides. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is all fat. Not in the slightest: it’s just the full complement of adult muscle, but squeezed onto a smaller frame. Or at least, that was always my story.
Close-up of a person's feet as they weigh themselves on bathroom scales
In truth, short folks do tend to become bulky if they neglect the exercise or overdo their intake of food (and alcoholic beverages, come to that). My father, a doctor, always counseled me to watch my weight, and himself never ate second helpings or cream. The danger is that once you become a bit fat, it’s hard to get rid of it. As for keeping fit and active, I spent the first forty years of my life running around at top speed doing stuff. I walked briskly, cycled to work, swam occasionally, and generally never had time to pile on the pounds.
Paralysis changed all that. Not at first, though: weeks of lying around in hospital with dysfunctional neurology means that the muscles of your butt and legs wither away. My partner had always liked my taut glutes, but now my bum became skin and bones – not least because hospital food is worse than inedible. Becoming spinal cord injured initially means becoming much thinner.
Close-up of a man measuring his waist size
Fast forward six months. Now I am in a chair, and I've got shoulders and arms like Geoff Capes. All that wheeling and transferring has done wonders for my upper body. But meanwhile, a stealthy fat roll has appeared around my waist - the rather familiar pot belly of the wheelchair user.
But I don’t want to be podgy! I may be unconventional, but I’ve always been vain about my weight and don’t want to blow my good record now that I’m paraplegic. I want to be able to do up my old trousers. More to the point, excess fat makes it harder to succeed in rehab. Which is why I wanted to find out from Sue, my physiotherapist, how I could get rid of the excess tummy.
The obvious answer is to eat less, of course. But I love cooking, I spend half my time in Geneva - a city with dozens of excellent French restaurants - and I am just beginning to appreciate fine wines. So I’m reluctant to ration myself too much. Although I am prepared to give up the puddings, if it comes to that.
Then there's exercise. Swimming, of course, is pretty useless. I can still get up and down the pool at a reasonable pace, and I tend to go about once a month. But as I understand it, twenty minutes of swimming burns the calorific equivalent of one banana, so evenings à la piscine would not be my best option.
Close-up of a wheelchair
Another approach is to go for long rolls in my chair. But while wheeling is great for strength and stamina, it doesn’t seem to burn enough calories, at least not compared to walking or cycling. There are also a lot of hills around both Geneva and Newcastle (where I live in the UK) and a fair few cobbles, neither of which are particularly enjoyable for wheelchair users. Perhaps it would help if I got a hand cycle and raced around Switzerland's enormous Lake Léman, but I’ve never been particularly sporty.
No, what I need is regular aerobic exercise. Which isn't easy to achieve when you're paralysed - although bedroom activities can be relied upon for working up a sweat. My physio, however, did have one horizontal suggestion of a less intimate kind. “Roll across the floor”, she recommended.
I was taken aback, but she was serious. Apparently, if you roll briskly from one side of the room to another, you’re pretty soon doing aerobic exercise. Unfortunately, you are also getting dusty, bruised and disturbing the occasional tables into the bargain.

So I turn to you, gentle and well-toned Ouch! reader, for advice. How does a novice paraplegic maintain the trim figure of his dreams? Should I roll around the endless corridors of the WHO to get my weekly physical activity? Must I put my days of foie gras and pommes dauphinoise behind me? Or is there an easier and more comfortable way? Over to you ...

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