Skip to content

Fitness and disability

Exercising with a disability

The Rio 2016 Paralympics are about to get underway, and thousands of athletes with a disability will be wowing the world with their feats of athletic excellence.

Four years ago we were mesmerised as the London 2012 Paralympics unfolded before us. From the power of Jonny Peacock and Richard Whitehead powering down the track in the 100m and 200m respectively to the utter concentration upon the face of Sophia Christiansen as she takes her horse through its dressage routine – the crowd watching every piece of action with bated breath.

Disability – no barrier to participation

Of course, not everyone can be an Olympian, but what these men and women showed is that being disabled should not be a barrier to participating in sport and physical activity. The opportunity to take part in sport and physical activity is a fundamental right for everyone, no matter what their level of ability. And for someone with a disability or chronic illness, the correct exercise can be a real alleviator of symptoms and, possibly, a life saver.

Physical activity is essential to keep us as strong and healthy as possible. There is plenty of evidence that says that people with a disability, particularly disabilities that include mobility limitations, do not get enough exercise a week and this leads to its own problems, including weight issues, weakened muscles and decreased heart and lung efficiency.

150 is the magic number

To maintain good health, adults need to do at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of light to moderate intensity activity each week. The good news is that every 10 minutes counts. And the more you do, the stronger you’ll become. You’re much more likely to feel better and live longer as a result.

As well as helping us keep an eye on our waistlines, exercise can also be a great boost for your mood, energy and self-confidence. It’s also a great way to get out and meet new people doing the same thing.

Activity isn’t just about becoming physically stronger. It can also help improve your coordination, balance, agility, concentration, stamina, speed and reaction times, by using different parts of your brain. It can help to reduce stress, and you may sleep better too.

Of course, it is easy to say ‘go to the gym’ but the reality is that starting an exercise regime is a big step. Here are a few simple things to remember.

  • Check with your doctor to see what exercises you should be doing and what intensity you should work to.
  • Contact the gym to find out what facilities they have; how those facilities meet your needs; and how accessible all the facilities are.
  • Meet with a fitness expert or personal trainer and have an induction on using all the equipment. The instructors can also provide you with an exercise programme and goals/targets.
  • If you are nervous about going to the gym, take a friend along with you.

Now you are all ready to start your exercise programme, so here are a few principles to apply to your training
• Vary your workout each session.
• Choose a pace that feels good to you; use the Ratings of Perceived Exertion scale or the “Conversation Rule”: you should be able to converse while exercising.
• Take slow, deep breaths and “think tall” to maintain good posture.
• When using weights perform each movement through a complete range of motion.
• Do not hold your breath while strength training. Instead, exhale or breathe out while pushing the weight up or out and inhale or breathe in while letting the weight down or in. “Think tall” to maintain your posture.
• If your goal is to increase your muscular endurance, you should use lighter weights and perform eight to 12 repetitions.
• If your goal is to increase your muscular strength, you should use heavier weights and perform five to eight repetitions.
• Flexibility training should be incorporated before and after every cardiovascular and strength workout.
• Be sure to hold stretches and progress slowly.
• Every muscle group used in a workout should be thoroughly stretched. Spend more time on tight muscle groups.
• Stretching should not be painful.