A disability should be no barrier to getting fit, says Ruth Walker
It’s too cold. It’s raining. You’re tired. Hungover. There are plenty of excuses not to exercise, but Neil Hamilton had more than most. Diagnosed with MS in 2010, within a couple of years the healthy 30-year-old was almost completely housebound and was forced to give up his demanding career in IT.
“My walking got so bad I needed a stick,” he says. “Then I got two walking sticks. Eventually I wasn’t actually able to get out of the house. I wasn’t even able to drive my car.”
He’d put off getting a wheelchair – somehow it had felt like giving in – but eventually he had to succumb, and it turned out to be the best thing in the world. “What an invention! It’s changed my life so much – just being able to get out and about.”
It also focused his mind on making some changes – and first on the agenda was to get fit. “I’d focused virtually my entire life on work and did extreme hours. I’d gone to the gym occasionally but can’t say I was a regular. Now I’m looking at the bigger picture of where things are going – the way things have turned around for me over the last three years scares me. What if I don’t get to the gym and keep myself fit and strong? What’s my situation going to be like?
“Losing your freedom makes you dig really deep and think about these things. Now I have my freedom back and am able to get out and choose what I’m going to do, I don’t have any excuse to sit in the house and not do anything about it. I need to make sure I’m the best I can possibly be for whatever life throws at me.”
He goes to the gym at Edinburgh’s Royal Commonwealth Pool three times a week, to use state-of-the-art cable pulling machines, weights and dumbbells, and swims in the Olympic-sized pool, where a hoist helps him get in and out of his wheelchair at the poolside and a borrowed aquabelt aids his buoyancy.
“The participation of people with disabilities in physical activity for 30 minutes, three times a week is as low as seven per cent,” says James Brandon, community inclusion officer for Edinburgh Leisure, adding that there really should be no barrier to anyone, regardless of their circumstances, getting the recommended dose of exercise. “We actually have really good mainstream access. There are lifts, hoists, all staff are trained, and there is free carer’s access, so if a carer is coming to support someone with disabilities in our facilities we don’t charge them for it.”
Cable weight machines enable those with mobility issues to be strapped in or supported in a seat to do activities like hand rowing, while their heart rate is monitored and the intensity can be automatically adjusted if need be. “We see a lot of people who are at risk of stroke or developing diabetes,” says Brandon, “and this machine will actually cut out if somebody’s heart rate is going too high.”
He is also working with specific groups, such as Autism Initiatives and Street Soccer, to provide programmes for adults with learning disabilities. “We are looking at more targeted programmes, for people who wouldn’t normally go to the gym or go swimming. We’re putting on open mornings, and fitness classes that are tailor-made for people with sensory or physical or learning disabilities.”
He has a particular interest in the 18 to 35 age group, he adds. “Up to 18 they were in school, they were having PE,” he says, “but when they move on there are very limited opportunities, or limited understanding of the opportunities available.”
And for those who are younger, there is the High Flyers scheme, inspired by the 2012 Paralympics.
“I just can’t wait until I’m super-fit and really strong,” says Hamilton. “Everyone mentions the improvement in me and I can see a mini-transformation already. I’m toning up and it keeps my spirits high.
“I’m actually hooked, it’s unbelievable. I’m just grateful that I can get out and do this, and I’ve got the chance to do it.”