Disability and Exercise

Exercise.  Something I’ve never realised the importance of, for me, more than I have in the last few weeks and months.

I’m a bit wobbly on my feet, so although I walk around at home I use an electric wheelchair most of the time when I’m out and about.  When I’ve reached a destination I’ll often get out of my chair to move around a bit, but I do tend to rest my hands on things as I pass for balance.

A couple of weeks ago I fell over.  At home, in a familiar environment, quite unexpectedly.  I do lose my balance sometimes – actually, probably quite often without realising it now I come to think of it.  I say ‘without realising it’ because I normally save myself pretty quickly before I’ve even thought about it.  But this time I didn’t, and I couldn’t regain my balance the way I normally can even if there’s nothing around to grab.  So over I went.

A little surprised, as this hadn’t happened in years, things started to add up in my head.  I’d nearly lost my balance on a number of occasions in the previous 3/4 weeks but hadn’t paid attention to it until now.  Why was I so wobbly?  I hadn’t been like this for years.  Since…

Oh, right, yes.  Since I started rock climbing five years ago.

And I’ve not climbed now for about six months.  I’ve been cycling, which has kept me fit and healthy, but I’ve hardly been doing even that for the last two months.

I didn’t do much exercise before I went to university, or in my first two years there.  So when I started climbing in my third year I saw massive improvements in my fitness and my balance.  It was my housemate who told me I was far more stable, and that’s because climbing works everything (or at least it feels like it does!) and my core strength suddenly improved significantly.  I still held onto people when I walked any distance, but I was much less ‘all over the place’ than I think I’d ever been.

Climbing is so much fun, too.  I love a challenge, and climbing provides that every time I go.  That’s why I did it, because I enjoyed it, and I will go back to it at some point.  The only reason I’ve stopped is because I don’t have a PA who can rock climb at the moment.

Last year I started cycling too, and saw significant improvements again.  I’d only been cycling a couple of months when I went on holiday in Cornwall and walked along the beach, right down at the edge of the sea.  I was holding onto my mum, but I was barely leaning on her as I was keeping my own balance surprisingly well.

This was new.  I’ve been on many family holidays down in Cornwall, a place that provides plenty of challenging terrain to walk over, and have always had to lean quite heavily on one if not two people to manage this (rock pooling as a child springs to mind.  I told you I like a challenge…).  Last year, though, I was keeping myself very steady as I waded along, feet in the sea, my mum providing some stability but not needing to do too much more than that most of the time.

Cycling had definitely made another significant difference to my core strength and balance.  One I really hadn’t expected.  I use a couple of different trikes, one that has foot pedals and another that is a hand cycle:

Jennie on hand cycle.jpg

Surprisingly, my favourite is the hand cycle!  The first time I used it I thought there was no way, no way whatsoever, I would get around a 400m athletics track.  Now?  On a good day I’ve done 16 laps, so 4 miles.  It’s great for my whole upper body, and as I use both bikes in any one session everything has a workout when I go cycling!

I really enjoy cycling, too.  I enjoy being able to exercise, being outside and feeling my body working.  I also like going fast, so I don’t go easy on myself!

But the last few weeks I’ve let it slip, I haven’t put it in my diary so it hasn’t happened.  I couldn’t go for various reasons in December, and I haven’t got back into the habit.  If I do cycle, though, I need to think about my day around it.  I could work in the morning and cycle in the afternoon, but I might not then go out in the evening, depending what I’d be going out for and how I’m feeling.  If I’m not careful I can be exhausted the next day.  Exercising takes a lot of energy, so I need to rest afterwards.

I didn’t fully appreciate how important exercise is for me until I stopped and saw how much it affects my balance, how much more wobbly I am if I don’t!  Exercise is important for everyone, and I think for people with mobility difficulties it is particularly important to make sure you keep as mobile as possible.  In my case, using a wheelchair means I use my muscles much less than everybody else does, so I need to be conscious of making sure I do exercise to maintain as much mobility as I can.