As someone with a serious disability, my relationship with the gym is kind of a melodramatic one, of the French arthouse je’deteste tu, je t’aime variety.
Never ever have I felt so singularly defined by my disability as I have at the gym. It is also the place where I have felt the greatest level of physical empowerment I have ever known.
Traditionally my people – people with a chronic illness or physical impairment that challenges daily functioning – are not gym people.
This is not from a lack of desire to join gyms. In the UK for example, the highly successful Paralympic games saw a surge of interest from people with disabilities seeking to become active through local gyms and fitness centres. However, local gyms were largely unprepared to cater for this major potential market:
“[I]naccessible changing rooms, steps, poor staff training and lack of usable sports equipment are some of the common barriers faced by people with a disability wanting to get involved.” – Leanord Cheshire Disability Report
Chance encounters – Love at first Sweat
I first ventured into the gym three years ago when my cousin Karen, turned up at our house one day with complimentary gym passes.
I don’t know why she did this. Back then my body and I were not friends. Having been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 11, I’ve spent most of my life viewing my body the way many people view their mother-in-law, an inevitable fact of life that is best endured employing a dedicated avoidance strategy.
Had it been anyone else I would have said no. But Karen is fun, super-pos and a very persuasive individual. Critically, she is also gorgeous waif who would physically struggle to pick up a small twig. This made her a uniquely non-intimidating gym partner. I agreed to go.
We bumbled through the instructions on the gym equipment together, laughing and groaning, as we figured out how things worked. Fortunately, Karen got bored and tired after about three reps, around the same time as I got ouchy. We tried about half the equipment in the gym. I had a blast. The next week I came back alone.
Three years on I love, lurve, the gym. Here are my tips to forming a successful and sustainable relationship.
Browntip No 1. It has to be right
I spent eighteen months at that first gym, watching my cardio times go up, perfecting my plank, and marvelling as my thighs slowly but surely began to take shape (it has always been my dream to have thighs like pistons the way Serena does).
Then something changed. They had an extensive refurb which suddenly made the gym unusable for me. Why? My favourite piece of low impact cardio-equipment, the elliptical, no longer had a hands-free option.
My wrists have taken quite a beating from recurrent inflammation over time. It would be no exaggeration to say that this point in my life your grandma could probably take me in an arm wrestle. So I need that hands-free option man. I tried to make it work, but eventually I had to accept that my gym no longer met my needs. It was time to move on.
Finding a new gym was hard. I had to take out a trial memberships at a number of different gyms before finding one that met all my needs. In my case, that meant a gym that had suitable equipment, well accredited instructors and, critically, the ability to suspend membership payments during flare-ups.
It will never by my first gym. As they say, the first cut is the deepest. But we are one year going strong.
Browntip No 2. You can’t hurry love
In order to avoid getting hurt, you need to take it slow. The most important thing I learned on the path to gainz, is that learning what works for you is a process of trial an error. Initially, rather more of the latter.
For the first session only do a few reps on any given equipment on the lowest possible weight setting. This is particularly important if, like me, you have an inflammatory condition and won’t necessarily know what is bad for you until the following day.
Trust me when I say, your boss will not be sympathetic if you call up too sick to work because you were over-zealous on the butt press machine-thingey and woke up with ankles the size of grapefruit. That shizz is not OK.
Browntip No. 3 Know when you need to take a break from each other
At some point, when developing an awareness of your body and potential feasible workout routines, you will experience new activity blowback.
By new activity blowback I do not mean DOMS or walking funny the day after riding a horse. I mean the fact that you have pushed your illness or disability too hard and need to take a few days to really rest.
This can happen when you start, but it can also happen when you increase your level of exercise too fast.
Once you start enjoying the gym, it can be challenging to force rest on yourself, especially when so many gym slogans encourage you to smash your way through pain. My advice: ignore these kind of slogans. They have as much to say about attaining realistic fitness goals as Hallmark Valentine’s Day Cards have to say about love.
Real gainz require you to respect pain, and to increase your activity levels slowly in order to maximise your freedom within the limitations that you do have.
Committing to the right amount or rest is as much a part of your workout routine as the plank. So when things get too heated, lie down, chill out, and check out what’s new on Netflix. The gym will still be there when you’re feeling better.
Browntip No. 4 Self-medication is not a healthy coping strategy
Once you start to feel your gym rhythm, feel those endorphin highs and gain more control more your body, the temptation to up the ante with a little help from your meds can be significant.
This is especially the case if you already lead a highly medicalised life – the kind where listing off all your medications is a mental challenge equivalent to remembering the names of all seven dwarves.
I will only say this once: if you ever find yourself taking painkillers or increasing one of your usual medications to go to the gym, it’s time to sound the alarm. Things have gotten toxic.
As Elisabeth Shue learnt in Leaving Las Vegas, a relationship built on self-medication is not a sustainable one.
Fitness should be about the long game: attaining the best feasible level of strength and wellbeing to allow your body to serve you well. Not just for today, but for the rest of your life.
Browntip No. 5. When things move to the next level, it’s OK to stop at any time
Exercise classes are a whole new level of the gym experience, because you are uniquely exposed and vulnerable. It is no fun being a negative outlier among a room of one’s peers. Moreso in a room full of mirrors. I didn’t start going to exercise classes until I had been a regular for about six-months. I felt I was ready.
At the start of most classes the instructor will ask if anyone has any injuries. I always go up and tell them I have RA, have had two hip replacements and can’t put pressure on my wrists.
I hate doing it, but it’s better for them and for me. Both in the interests of disclosure, and also in case they screw up, so I can sue them and buy a pony. Jk. I have arthritis what I am going to do with a pony?
I’ve been in classes – BodyStep – where within about ten minutes I could tell that the dull ache in my ankles was going to result in a flare-up. That was my cue to pack up and leave discretely without disrupting the class.
There have been other cases where the instructor followed the protocol of asking about my condition, and then went on with the class as though I hadn’t spoken. The first time this happened I stayed the duration of the class, feeling sad, defective and like my presence was an inconvenience to everyone around me.
If this ever happens to you: it’s not you, it’s them. A good instructor will offer modifications once informed of your condition. A very bad instructor will behave as just described above. If this feeling sets in it’s time to pack up and leave, and figure out how to communicate this in an effective way.
Browntip No. 5 Communication is the key to any good relationship
If a fitness centre is not meeting your needs because of an accessibility issue – such as a jerk instructor, a heavy swinging door, or a piece of equipment that could only be adjusted with the hands of Thor – let the gym know.
Just…don’t do this when you are sweating and raging out. Go home. Complain to a friend, partner or disability support website. And when you are chill write to the gym about your experience and how things could have been done better.
Unfortunately the level of knowledge and understanding in the fitness world still has a long way to go. A lot of the time, the gym staff want to make their services more accessible but just don’t know how to go about it.
And if the gym is unresponsive. Take your custom elsewhere.
My life, on gym
For me, there is nothing better than feeling strong, and knowing that I am the one responsible for that feeling. In terms of managing my illness, stronger muscles means more support for my intermittently angry joints. It has made a massive difference and allowed me to take down some of my medications.
But as anyone with an auto-immune illness will tell you, no future forecast on energy and pain levels is ever truly reliable. Sometimes I feel like investing in my body is like investing in a high risk stock. The returns wax and wane with my disease levels. Even if I do all the right things I can never be sure that I won’t inadvertently cause a flare-up.
So, if it’s love, it’s a lover that treats me bad. It’s also a love that has opened up doors to all kinds of new activities that would previously have been outside my physical capacity like scuba diving and mountain biking.
The trade-offs are worth it to me, for now.