“I’m running the world’s only wheelchair spin class”

Guest post from Kris Saunders-Stowe, a fitness instructor working with both disabled and non-disabled people. In Scope’s film, he explains why we need to change the way we think about disability and fitness.

We hope it will inspire you to sign up to our inclusive fundraising event, Steptember and get moving this September!

DSC_0184My first response to the idea of using a wheelchair started with ‘f’ and ended with ‘off’! I was an active person, and never saw myself as a wheelchair user.

But my joint problems, which started 14 years ago, progressively got worse and I was doing less and less. Over time – and no word of a lie – I became a hermit. Going out became more and more difficult, and eventually I just thought, ‘What’s the point of going anywhere?’ I never went out apart from to the doctor and the supermarket.

‘It was so liberating’

Then some friends of mine were going to Alton Towers, and the only way I could realistically join them was by borrowing a wheelchair.

And that was it. It was so liberating. Suddenly I was back to normal. It was a completely different perspective – I was free to move about as quickly or slowly as I wanted, and I could do so much more.

That was two years ago, and I’ve never looked back since. My personality has come back, and I take things in my stride rather than letting them get on top of me. In actual fact, I think I’ve got a better life than I’ve had in probably 20 years.

Getting into fitness

I’ve always worked in horticulture and retail – never in sports or fitness at all. But then in 2012, I was in Cardiff and the Australian Paralympic team were staying in my hotel! We got chatting, and I followed the team during the Games and got quite engrossed.

DSC_0518I took up wheelchair basketball and we didn’t have a proper coach, so I had a go at standing in myself. I loved it, and I started thinking: ‘Could I do this for a job?’

Within a couple of months, I had started the qualifications I needed to become a fitness instructor.

While I was training, I realised that there aren’t enough fitness programmes properly tailored for disabled people. The few classes I could find on YouTube were extremely slow and sedentary. The instructor training manuals would say, ‘You may need to adapt this routine for disabled people…’ – but what does that mean? They didn’t say. It was a token gesture.

Wheely Good Fitness

So I decided to set up my own business, Wheely Good Fitness, running classes adapted for physically disabled people. That doesn’t mean they’re gentle or easy – they are pretty intense!

I currently run a variety of classes, including what is quite possibly the only wheelchair spin class in the world. We have a huge range of members, from people with slight mobility problems to those with very complex needs.

It’s incredibly rewarding for me because I can see the change in people. Within a few weeks they’re sitting up straighter in their wheelchairs, their flexibility increases, their confidence grows.

Suzy (right), one of our most committed members, recently pushed herself round a shopping centre for the first time in years. The change in her has been unbelievable.

Changing attitudes

I’m currently writing a set of qualifications for instructors, explaining how to create fitness regimes suitable for disabled people. My hope is that these will be accredited by awarding body Skills Active, which means the qualification will be available for instructors across the country to take.

I am so surprised that no one has looked at wheelchair-based fitness from a different perspective.

People seem to have got used to seeing disabled people as delicate and fragile, rather than as somebody who’s just got a different way of doing things. Being disabled doesn’t mean you need to be wrapped in cotton wool, it just means you need to think creatively about exercise and fitness.

Getting fit and taking control of your body is just another way of demonstrating your capabilities – and suddenly, you’re taking down those barriers.

Find out more about Steptember, and sign up today! 

8 thoughts on ““I’m running the world’s only wheelchair spin class””

  1. There should be more classes like this! Over the last two years fittness has become a massive part of my life but because of my CP there aren’t many classes I am able to do and the ones I can I find too slow and they don’t push me enough. Great idea Kris!

    1. Thanks for the positive reply. This is exactly what these classes are about and why we need to get more of them out and across the country. Exercise is excellent for CP for improving co-ordination and range of movement as well as it’s health benefits.

  2. Thanks Roger – the lack of these types of classes for people with disabilities is the very reason Wheely Good Fitness came about. It’s hoped over time as perceptions and ideas on this subject are challenged, that more organisations and centres will start to provide a better choice to ensure that regardless of ability, we can all take part in looking after our health whilst also improving our abilities for a better and more independent life.

  3. Good luck with getting your course onto the National Framework. I recently enquired at my local sports centre about classes. I got a great response, right up until I mentioned my disability, then the lady’s facial expressions changed and suddenly I was being advised to attend somewhere else because it would be ‘more suitable’. I walked away very disappointed and disillusioned. I am perfectly capable of assessing what I can do physically myself and found it quite amusing that you lady I spoke to had no idea about my disability, until I mentioned it!

    1. Hi Redcat – sorry you had that experience but it is unfortunately a common one. Hopefully as perceptions and the understanding of disability changes this will change though it will not be a quick process. In my local centres I am seeing a steady change as I demonstrate to them through my classes that we are not as delicate and incapable as society has been led to believe and that generally speaking we are just another part of the fantastic rich tapestry that makes up our society.

      Recently I have been involved in disability training for a local centre where I dispelled a few myths and tackled some of the awkwardness around disability. Many of those attending came away with a different view and expressed how they had never genuinely realised that what they thought was a positive and receptive view to people living with a disability was in fact poor.

      Your experience of the lady not realising demonstrates in a way that it’s not necessarily a persons disability that is the issue but the actual understanding (or lack of in this case) of the word disability and it’s implications. I am in a very unique position to challenge these ideas so to speak because I am both a wheelchair user and working in the fitness industry enabling me to show what we are capable of and question protocol with facts rather than assumption. It’s a slow process but every person that see’s disability from a different perspective has the chance to challenge anothers and champion change.

      These changes are also needed within the fitness bodies to bring about changes to the system and enable our proposed qualifications to be accredited and rolled out. Sadly there is still a lot of work to be done in this area before we can progress further. However there are many ways to bring about change and we are only a few weeks away from releasing our first Wheel-Fit home exercise DVD – this will enable more people living with disability to start taking steps to improve their fitness, abilities and confidence. It is hoped that this will prove successful and create more demand for the classes to be available in centres furthering the need for change. With Steptember on the doorstep it is hoped this will give people something exciting and different to try out whilst also helping to raise money for and support Scope.

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