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Pain Chronicles: The Real Reason why Disabled People Exercise Less

Pain Chronicles is a monthly(-ish) column from Caroline McDonagh-Darwin about coming to terms with living with a chronic illness. It will include funny stories and brutal honesty, with some thrown-in chats with her mum Shaz, and other friends too, along the way. 

One of the main guarantees of disabled life on the internet is being asked “Have you tried yoga?” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been asked that question. 

In fact, if I had a pound for every time I’d been asked that I’d have too much money for the DWP to give me the disability benefits they don’t give me anyway. 

I was actually asked the yoga question in public last week. My face has never been good at hiding my true feelings (cheers neurodivergence), but I think it must have borderline provided subtitles to the swearing that was going on inside my head. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released census data yesterday from 2021 for England and Wales, on the number of people who identify as disabled. Although the data comes with its own issues that I won’t get into at the moment, the total came in at 9.8 million, or approximately 18% of the population.

Activity Alliance has also released their own data from a survey on inactivity. 42% of disabled people do less than 30 minutes of exercise per week, compared to 23% of our non-disabled counterparts. 

It’s probably not a big surprise that a lot of disabled people have activity limitations – it’s pretty hard to exercise when everything hurts or your fatigued limbs feel like they’re wading through treacle. 

But what the statistics don’t show is the reasons for this activity limitation. As I said, pain and fatigue get in the way but that’s not necessarily the whole story here. It certainly isn’t the whole story of why I don’t do yoga. 

Among other things, my joints are extra bendy, which contributes to why they hurt. This can be something that comes at loggerheads with good old yoga, as well as with a lot of different physical activities. Overstretching can cause joint damage – and it’s why a friend of mine with the same conditions as me has a list from her doctor of the exercises she absolutely should not do; including yoga. 

“No pain, no gain” might be something that is often said to the non-disabled population (although I also don’t agree with it then) but it has the potential to be disastrous for disabled people.

Okay, so maybe I need a specialist class, such as chair yoga, or adaptations to a workout routine; that should work, right? In theory. But the latest news from the Tory party seems to be that they’re looking at reducing their funding for leisure centres

Swimming is one of the few exercises I sometimes find myself able to do, but with the sky-high energy costs for a centre with a funding cut, and the general cost of living crisis making justifying the gym membership incredibly hard, this avenue may in fact be closed off. 

And if you’re lucky enough that your local centre survives this, you still have to get through the door. My nearest leisure centre has terrible accessibility – the cardio gym is upstairs with no lift access, there’s just the one disabled changing room for the whole place, and the chair to help you get in the pool if you can’t do the ladders was once broken for 6 months. 

The accessible gym that’s just outside the town centre is a good 10-minute walk from the bus, and costs you twice the price, so that’s out too. Local classes are held in community centres and churches with enough access that they can meet their “reasonable adjustments”, but generally you have to deal with car park mazes and ramps with the tightest turns known to man. 

Even if you manage to get the perfect class or gym that you can do on a day when you can get yourself out of your house, there may still be another barrier in your way – the DWP. 

If you’ve been awarded benefits based on the fact that you can’t do certain things, they may find that your ability to exercise shows that you have been dishonest (when you haven’t). 

Never mind the payback such exercise will probably leave you with. Certainly never mind the potential long-term benefits such exercise may have, or if it’s recommended by your doctors. Nah, if you can carry a yoga mat into a class, you can clearly look after yourself and work 40-hour weeks. 

In case that sounds like hyperbole, Vice reported on one benefit claimant who had been personally surveilled and then had this taken widely out of context – assuming her showing up for an event meant she fully participated. 

Photographic evidence can be presented from plain clothes agents who may snap you making your way into your local leisure centre before patting themselves on the back for a job well done – even if you were only going in to inquire if they know anywhere local offering chair yoga. 

But what about the rather flexible and slightly relaxed elephant in the room? Yoga will not cure my disability. Physical activity can be good for certain issues had by certain people when done in certain ways, where possible.

If you can move in a way that isn’t harmful to you, that is accessible to you, and that helps you short or long-term, then fair play to you. 

If you have a long-term health condition, I strongly advise that you talk to your doctor before you do any regular exercise (or one-off exercise, actually), and be aware of how your new regime may affect your health.

I would love to be able to swim three times a week, doing up to 10 miles in that time, just like I did when I was slightly more healthy. But I just can’t do that anymore. 

The different factors that can be in the way of exercise helping – the factors that will make the difference between feeling better and feeling worse – are not something that can be represented in the ONS statistics, because they’re so individual to each person. 

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