Working out and exercising down syndrome

Disability and exercise – what’s stopping you?

12th January 2017

We’re not about faddy New Year’s resolutions here at MFON towers, but we do believe that those small changes really can make a big difference to how you feel both mentally and physically.

It isn’t news to anyone that exercise is good for you and children of all ages. It’s regularly emphasised as an important part of young people’s development and education. So why should it be different for disabled people? As Vanessa Wallace and John Parfitt, who are both qualified disabled fitness instructors, quite rightly say, it shouldn’t.

If Rio 2016 proved anything; it’s that disability doesn’t need to be a barrier to exercise and sport. Team GB closed the Rio Paralympic Games by securing second place in the Medals Table with a total of 147 medals, 64 of which were Gold. You can read My Family, Our Needs’ round-up of the Paralympic sports here.

Our Paralympians smashed World Records and beat off fantastic competition on the way to achieving their successes. Now, we know these athletes are at the top of their game, but they’ve definitely inspired us to get more active.

Getting into fitness

Vanessa Wallace has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Fixed Dystonia in her lower limbs. Her whole body is affected and she experiences chronic pain and fatigue. She says, ‘I have first-hand experience of how it feels to not know how to even begin approaching fitness, let alone think it is a place where you belong. But we need to change this – schools, clubs, centres and the whole fitness industry need more disabled people to have a strong presence across the country.’

John Parfitt sustained a spinal cord injury aged 25, which has left him a full-time wheelchair user. He says, ‘Exercise has been a fundamental part of my recovery. Building strength and fitness has allowed me to have a more independent and active lifestyle. My injury has given me new horizons that might not have been available to me, such as representing GB in wheelchair sports together with the opportunity to travel the world.’

Vanessa agrees, ‘Despite the fight, struggles, tears and having to constantly explain my disability to people, I feel it has had a positive impact on my confidence and self-awareness, and sport and exercise have been key to this. Accept that it’s ok to feel however you feel – it can be a struggle to get where you want to be but trust yourself that you’ll get there.’

Vanessa and John both qualified as fitness instructors through InstructAbility, a programme created by Aspire and YMCAfit, to offer free fitness industry training to unemployed disabled people. InstructAbility aims to challenge negative perceptions of disabled people in society and encourage greater participation of disabled people in sport and leisure activity.

Benefits of exercise

According to the NHS, people who regularly exercise have a 30% lower risk of premature death and a 30% lower risk of depression. Exercise can boost mood and energy levels and improve sleep. It is also believed to help memory and brain function and to reduce stress. As Vanessa explains, ‘Sport and fitness activities have given me, and the people I’ve worked with, a sense of self-worth. It’s something that you’re doing – not something that someone else is doing for you. A lot of being disabled can be based on other people helping you but, with sport, I’ve got something to do that’s mine. You can say – I threw that, I caught that, I moved it – it’s yours.’

John adds, ‘Take it upon yourself to get out there – it’s your own life. The benefits will far outweigh any difficulties you might have.’

Vanessa and John’s top five tips for helping you and your children get fit
  1. Do what works for you and them – don’t compare with anyone else. Experts recommend about 20 minutes a day of exercise that is hard enough to raise your heart rate and cause a sweat. For children aged between five and 18, experts recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. This should range from moderate activity, such as cycling and playground activities, to vigorous activity, such as running and tennis. Whether it’s a seated activity like Boccia or going for a run, it doesn’t matter how it’s done, just find something that you and/or your child are comfortable with and that is enjoy
  1. Find a local sports club. There are sports to accommodate all kinds of disabilities and the sociable aspect will make exercising more enjoyable. Most local councils have a sports development officer or inclusion officer who can provide details of local activities. If you click on any of My Family, Our Needs’ Paralympic articles, you can find your nearest disability sports club or team using the Parasport ‘Find a Club’ box in the top right hand corner.
  1. Find out where your nearest accessible gym is and visit them. You can get personalised advice at good gyms. Start by looking at the English Federation of Disability Sport website ( or National Disability Sports Organisations (NDSOs). Ask gyms what they can offer. Be assertive, you have just as much right to be there as anyone else. Ask to show them what you can do rather than letting them make assumptions about your abilities. Also, ask if they have any clubs or courses that you or your child might enjoy.
  1. You don’t have to use a gym to exercise – use what you have in order to keep fit. Look online to find exercises from yoga and Pilates to strength training or cardio workouts: improvise and use water bottles as weights if required; get out and walk, run or wheel yourself around. Even activities like gardening and cleaning can raise your heart rate. There’s never been a better time to get your child to clean their room!
  1. Watch what you eat – a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables will help to keep you healthy and full of energy. Vanessa shares, ‘If you’re a snacker, like me, keep healthy snacks on you at all times so you and your child can keep your energy up. And stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.’

You can find more information on InstructAbility here

What do you and your family do to keep active? My Family, Our Needs would love to hear your tips so if you or your child want to share your story email us at or tweet us @weareMFON

This feature has been adapted from an article originally published in Progress Magazine.

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