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Podcast With A Blindness Perspective.

Exercise, Fitness, and Chocolate … With a Blindness Perspective - Blog Post by Kelsi Hansen

May 20, 2019

It is a well known fact that exercise and overall fitness is essential to living a healthy happy life. But for a blind individual, exercise may not be as easy to accomplish as it is for sighted individuals. There are definitely some unique challenges that come with exercise and being blind. For instance, I cannot just walk out my front door and go for a 6 mile jog by myself. Maybe eventually I could, but right now, I couldn’t. I can’t just join a yoga class for the first time, and expect to know what they are talking about when they say do “downward dog” or “child’s pose.” Watching the demonstration they give at the front of the class is not going to work for me. I am still not going to understand what they want me to do. So, how then am I as a blind person, supposed to get good quality exercise that I enjoy? 

First off, it is important to know that fitness is a journey. It is a journey without a destination; it is a life-long pursuit that is probably going to have a lot of starts and stops along the way. And that is okay; it is okay to take a break from exercising; it is okay to explore, and figure out what you like and what you don’t like; it is okay to say, “this exercise does not work for me.” 

If you can’t enjoy your journey, then you will not want to make it. And if you don’t make the journey, then it will be harder to stay healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I have stopped a lot on my journey. I don’t like to “exercise.” I prefer to, what I call, “be active.” It’s not fun for me to go to a gym and do weights day in and day out. I prefer to be out in the community doing things: hiking; rock climbing; biking; swimming etc. And I don’t want to label any of that as “exercise,” because then it won’t be fun for me. 

I have joined rock climbing, a swim team, judo, and track. I have taken belly dancing, swing dancing, and water aerobics classes. But none of them stuck. I got tired and burnt out on all of them after a few months, and I couldn’t figure out why.

 Over the years, I came to realize that I am very competitive. I am competitive and want to beat others. But I am also competitive within myself; I want to be better than I was, than I am. Which can be really healthy in the right dose. Unfortunately for me though, I am a very sore loser. I don’t mean to be, but I realized that I am. I am never top at anything I do. I am not super talented in the sports department. I am mediocre. And I don’t have the patience to push past my mediocrity, which meant I was always going to lose some; I was always going to be hard on myself for not being better; for not being as good as others. It may be an unhealthy thought pattern, but that’s where my head was at. So I gave up all sports, and decided that I was going to live an active life style. I was going to swim when I could or bike when I could, but I wasn’t going to actively exercise. 

But as a blind person, the active life style wasn’t going so well. Without many friends, a lot of activities I didn’t want to, or couldn’t do. I couldn’t ride my tandem bike outside without someone to pilot. I didn’t want to go swimming by myself. I could take walks, but that got boring and repetitive. After years of this, I noticed my health was declining. I no longer felt like a twenty something, and instead felt like I was forty. I had a lot of aches and pains, my energy level was low, and I just didn’t feel young.

 I had to figure something out. So I went online and found a class that I wanted to take. It was a barre class, which combines ballet and pilates in a way that works on balance. Only one problem: how was I to join this class without taking up too much of the instructor’s time, and slowing the class down? I decided to have a couple of private sessions with a personal trainer to learn what sort of things they did in the class, so I could keep up. And those couple of lessons have turned into a couple of years. I discovered that by having a personal trainer, I got to do many different types of exercises. If I don’t like one, we try another. 

Just having that small amount of exercise lifted my mood, and made me feel healthier. I started feeling more my age, and loved that feeling. So I decided to try new things outside of my short sessions with my trainer. I found a beginning running clinic in my town that I joined. Through that I met a lot of runners from the local run club who were willing to run with me. Running became less of an exercise, and more of a social event for me, which makes it way more fun!

 Through running, I met a couple of friends who invited me to go to the gym with them every day. I don’t like going to the gym, it is “exercising.” But I have found that the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing my friend’s everyday; I enjoy feeling strong; and most of all I enjoy that feeling of accomplishment I get watching how far I’ve come in my fitness over the last few months. The more I work out, the more I want to work out. I have become so much healthier. Instead of feeling my age, I feel five years younger. Also, the more active I become, the more I seem to accomplish in my daily life. 

This has been my fitness journey so far, and why I think it is so important. Exercise really does keep you healthy in every way, and it is more clear to me now, than it ever has been. It is hard to start, but once you take that first step, every step after that gets easier to take. 

Exercise is not a one size fits all activity. There are exercises that will fit you better than others. But some of them, you may feel like you can’t do because of your lack of sight. And if that’s the case, then you might not find the right exercise for you because maybe you feel like you can’t do it. So, here are some tips that I have learned over the years of trying many many different exercises: 

1. Exercise at Home 

Let’s say you can’t get out and exercise-maybe you don’t have a local gym; or just don’t really want to leave the house. There is always the option of exercising at home. Personally, I find this boring, but a lot of people prefer it. It is something you can do with, or without special equipment. Maybe just try some exercises, or stretches that you have learned before. If you don’t know any, you could have someone watch some work out videos, and show you the types of exercises in them. Or, if you could find a guided work out video online that talks you through the exercises, you could use that.

 The best part about working out at home is that you don’t necessarily have to do it for long periods of time. You could just do ten minutes here and there. A little bit goes a long ways towards helping you feel healthier. And, it might give you that first step you need to start your fitness journey. 

2. Fitness Classes 

You could join a fitness class that sounds interesting to you, whether that be a water aerobics, taekwondo, or zumba class. In the past, I have joined with a friend with the understanding that they would help explain the exercise. Or show me what I missed, or didn’t understand. 

 It can also be helpful to contact the instructor ahead of time to let them know that you are going to join the class and that you are blind. I haven’t always done this, sometimes it is uncertain who the instructor will be until the last minute. If I can’t get ahold of them before the start of the class, I make sure to arrive early and talk to them before class. That way the instructor is aware that I am blind. I can let them know some things that would help me have a good experience, such as having them describe what they are doing while they are demonstrating the exercise to the class. 

I have had one instructor who went above and beyond, and I didn’t even need the friend who joined with me. Once, I joined a belly dancing class, and the instructor would demonstrate for the class, and then come over to me, and let me feel how she moved her body, to make sure I understood what I was supposed to do, before starting the music. Touch is a really good way to learn what you are supposed to do. Not everyone is comfortable with being touched though, so it is good to find out if the instructor would be comfortable with it first. And if you are not comfortable being touched, then let the instructor or friend know, so they can give more explanation if necessary. 

Touch works amazingly, but it can be time consuming. Let’s say that you want to join a yoga class, where you might have to contort your body in very specific complicated ways. Touching the instructor, or having them position your body, through the whole class would take up a lot of time, and the other people taking the class wouldn’t get as much out of it. In this case, having a couple of private sessions before hand to learn the different poses is probably going to work best. Once you are familiar with the poses and their names, you could join a class without much disruption to others. 

It is important to note that a good instructor will take the time for you. Most fitness instructors that I have come across are very passionate about the activity they are teaching, and tend to just want people to be healthy. So most of them will take the time it takes to teach you because they really care about fitness.  I have found that the instructors can make or break the experience. So if the instructor is not great, go to plan B: ask a friend; or get a private session; or maybe just switch classes. But don’t give up! Eventually you will find your nitche; you’ll find what you enjoy; and you’ll find the right instructor or trainer!

3. Fitness Clubs

Joining a local fitness club is an excellent way to get some exercise and meet new people. In the past I have been in a martial arts club, and now I am in a runners club. My experience with both have been very positive. Within the club, when I go, people tend to just jump in and help. Or if you ask for help, they will help. There is usually no need for me to hire a personal trainer, or bring a friend to help me. The club members tend to fill that position. 

Or maybe there is some sort of small group, not necessarily a club, in your area that you could be a part of. Maybe there is a small group of people who go hiking once a week; or maybe there’s a group that goes for bike rides on a regular basis. If this is something of interest, do some research in your area. Put some feelers out, and see if there is any local clubs or groups that you might be interested in.

4. Weight Rooms 

Going to the Weight room is great for your fitness, and can be done fairly independently for a blind individual. Personally, it’s not my jam, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried it. So, how can one figure out a machine and set the proper weight without sight to rely on?

 The first thing to do is to explore the weight room you are using. Get familiar with where the machines are. Once you pick a machine, it’s most helpful to explore it; Find where you would adjust the weights, which is usually in front of, or to the right of the machine; find where you would sit, and how you would move the machine. Don’t be afraid to look silly.  Exploring the machine by touch is going to help you learn how to use it independently.  And attaining knowledge is never a silly endeavor! 

Before you  use the machine, you are going to need to adjust the weights. A lot of this is trial and error. You might not know what weight is best for you. Or if you do, you would need to set it to that weight.

 There is generally a hole in the brick, or weight, that you would put an attached pin in. Each brick usually  ranges from 10-15 pounds (at least in the US, I can’t speak for other countries.)  So if you put the pin three bricks down, you would be adding 30-45 pounds. Some machines have a minimum weight, so this 30-45 pounds might be added on top of that. Also, there may be five pound weights suspended above the machine that you can adjust to add smaller increments to the weight if you wish. 

One thing I would recommend is to not add any weight until you know how to use the machine. If you weren’t quite sure how it moved, and you added weight, you  might end up hurting yourself. It is extremely important to explore the machine before you use it. If you were to move the wrong way with weights added, you could strain or tear a muscle, or worse. Always explore your environment in the weight room to ensure your safety. 

If you want to use dumbbells or kettle belles, they are usually ordered from lightest to heaviest on the rack. The smallest is usually 5 pounds, and they generally increase by 5 pounds from there. Also, when you use kettle belles or free weights, you are going to want to make sure you have a clear space. If you are too close to a machine or a person, you or someone else could get hurt. This is another reason exploring your environment, and knowing your space is essential in a weight room. 

And lastly: CHOCOLATE!!! Most people love chocolate. I’ve only met a  few crazies who don’t. Okay okay, if I could be one of the few people who don’t like chocolate, I would do it in a heartbeat. If you are like me, then chocolate is your weakness. I have a mega sweet tooth, especially with chocolate, and I can’t just eat one. Now that I, yes I will say it, exercise on a regular basis, I can feel slightly less guilty when I indulge my sweet tooth. Chocolate is still not good for me … unless it’s dark chocolate, then it’s just heart healthy … and I definitely eat too much of it, but now that I exercise I can feel a bit less guilty when I eat it. This is another, if not the best benefit to regular exercise. Chocolate makes my world go round!!!

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