Staying Fit With a Physical Disability
As far back as I can remember, my mum had MS. From what I could see, she didn’t really exhibit any physical symptoms, however looking back I can see that she was plagued by depression. It wasn’t until I left home to go to University in 2000 that her physical symptoms really started to tell. Over the next four years I can only describe her physical condition to have deteriorated from a fairly capable woman, to that of an old, infirm and unstable woman.
During this period, I had established a career in the fitness industry. By 2006 my mum’s condition had deteriorated so badly that when visiting one Sunday, I felt she needed to be put in the local hospital, instead of her current situation which was three daily visits from a carer. I arranged for her to be collected by ambulance and left her in the hospital as I returned to London to get ready for the week ahead. The following morning I received a call from the hospital saying that they thought my mum had had a stroke. I Immediately left London to get to the hospital to find her in a comatose state, the state in which she remained for the remaining six years of her life.
It turns out that it wasn’t a stroke; her diaphragm had failed resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain. The result? Brain damage, which left her unable to move, eat or speak. I don’t even know if she was capable of comprehension.
It was during this six year period that I had the opportunity to attend a training course on “Exercise for People with Disabilities”. The course intrigued me, firstly because of my experience with my mum, and secondly because I didn’t really think people with disabilities could exercise. None of the exercises I had been taught so far would have been of any way useful to someone like my mum – or so I thought.
The course was a real eye-opener and I learnt that not only is exercise equally - if not more - important for a disabled person but it’s also perfectly feasible as long as you take the time to think outside of the box a little. In most cases, all of the same rules of health and fitness apply, it’s just that the exercises need to be tweaked slightly or reinvented in ways which suit the condition of the person performing the exercise.
The current state of the disability fitness industry
Although it was too late to help my mum, I saw this was a really under-serviced area and that this kind of knowledge just wasn’t easily accessible for most disabled people (as is the case with a lot of services on the market). So in January 2008 I launched my own personal training website with a dedicated page for fitness for disabled people. Quickly this page shot to the top of Google for all search terms related to disability personal training which highlights the lack of similar services available.
Over the past 10 years, the number of enquiries I've received has grown considerably. This growth could be partly due to increased popularity of events like the Paralympics which builds awareness of the various conditions out there and the fact that people are still able to exercise, get fitter and compete, despite their conditions. Now this change is occurring, it’s important that the services on offer increase inline with the demand to ensure that there is sufficient offering on the market to service the demand.
The major challenge with writing a fitness programme for someone with a disability is that, in many cases, they simply can’t do an off-the-shelf fitness programme because most of the standard exercises won’t be achievable. Working one-on-one with an individual with a disability is challenging, but doable if you think outside of the box. However, each disability comes with its own set of rules and varying stages. This means that certain rules for someone with early stage MS, for example, may not work for someone at a more advanced stage of MS. And those rules may be completely different for an individual with Parkinson’s. Each individual needs to be carefully assessed and a bespoke programme created with their specific capabilities in mind.
Later this year I’ll be launching an online training programme for people with MS and if the feedback is positive, I’ll attempt to do the same in the future for various other conditions. I’m hoping it will be a step in the right direction and give more opportunities to more people to get the help that they need.
Things to consider if you are disabled and looking to focus more on health and fitness
Firstly, remember that in most cases, the fundamental rules of health and fitness still apply. Strength is achieved the same way. Endurance is achieved the same way, as is flexibility, weight loss, toning and increases in muscle mass.
a) For weight loss, burn more fuel than you consume and vice-versa for weight gain
b) For strength gains lift more weight than you are used to lifting
c) For endurance perform an activity for longer than you are used to doing
d) In every case, you must progress. Doing the same thing repeatedly won’t result in any increase of fitness. Go longer, lift more, move faster or train more frequently
One big consideration is the amount of calories burnt on a daily basis. In many cases people are less active as a result of their disability which means they burn less fuel on a day to day basis. It’s important in this case the calorie intake is adjusted accordingly, otherwise weight gain can be a real issue. If your disability affects your mobility, the last thing you need is extra weight making the task of getting around even more challenging. If you weren’t born with your disability, it can be challenging to adjust your diet accordingly as it can mean big changes to the way you eat. The only way to tell if you’re eating the correct amount? The change in your body fat levels.
Technique is something which can take a back seat. Traditionally, personal trainers spend a great deal of time trying to ensure that their clients are performing the techniques by the book. If you have a disability, the chances of you replicating the suggested technique accurately may be out of the question. If this is the case, it’s more important that you’re doing something, than it is for you to get it looking exactly how it should.
Strength vs. Cardio
Focus on strength exercises 50% of the time and cardio 50%. Often people either focus on purely cardiovascular fitness such as running, handbike etc, or the other extreme and just do weight training without a cardiovascular aspect. Your health will benefit more if you do both strength and cardio. Cardio keeps you alive and healthy, limiting the risk of cardiovascular disease. Strength keeps you strong, functional, helps prevent weight gain and boosts your immune system.
Just Do It!
Whatever the case, just try to do something. Exercise not only helps from a physical perspective but also a social and mental aspect too. Regular workouts with a friend(s) can be a great way to pass the time, catch up, chat and share thoughts. Performing exercise also releases serotonin, the hormone which helps improve our mood.
Dom Thorpe - Disability Training www.dt-training.co.uk