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2nd December 2015

‘My mission to change how the world views fitness and disability’

When Kris Saunders-Stowe met the Australian Paralympic team in London in 2012, he was inspired to take up wheelchair basketball. Local gyms had little to offer wheelchair users – so Kris set out to reimagine fitness training for people with differing abilities.

“The more I looked into gyms and what was on offer to wheelchair users and people with differing abilities the more I saw it was an area greatly neglected,” he says Kris. “People with differing abilities were either being overlooked altogether, forced to fit in with the able-bodied formats or presumed to have the same needs as older age group clients. This led me on a mission to bring about a change in the way fitness and disability are seen from the inside out.”

Kris qualified as a gym and fitness instructor, obtained his disability qualification and created a programme like no other: Wheely Good Fitness.

We caught up with Kris ahead of UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities to find out more:

Q 1: What challenges do wheelchair users face in terms of keeping fit?

Unless you have access to a fully-accessible gym or smooth open pavements it can be difficult to maintain fitness easily. Many gyms will still view a wheelchair user as delicate, and struggle to see much beyond the chair. Understanding the way in which an individual functions and uses their chair is the key to good training as the aim is to improve daily function.

Q 2: What is available for those keen to stay active?

There are options – athletics tracks, training rollers and ergo bikes. However, this can be boring on your own and you also want to know what to do and how best to train. Your arms, hands and shoulders, as a wheelchair user, are the most important parts of your body and they need to be looked after to ensure long term independence.

Q 3: Why is so important to work out?

A high percentage of wheelchair users will die as a result of cardiovascular disease through lack of exercise. This is why a cardio workout is important, elevating the heart rate, getting out of breath and slowly improving the bodies abilities. If you are a self-propelling wheelchair user, you need to be working harder than you do when you gently push around town and unless you have a roller unit or access to an athletics track this can be hard. If you are unable to self-propel because of upper body limitations, then it’s even harder to maintain your health as options are more limited.

Q 4: Why might people feel more comfortable at Wheely Good Fitness than in a gym?

I would like to think it’s because they can be their own capable selves. In standard format fitness classes and gym sessions, a person with a disability is the odd one out – sometimes there as a token gesture. In our sessions everyone is equal regardless of ability, and rather than trying to get everyone to fit in with the programmes, we design the programmes to fit around the wider ranges of the group

What also makes our classes different is our approach – exercise needs to be fun and exciting, just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you lose the desire for a challenge. Our workouts are high energy and modern, designed to challenge and push people constantly.

Q 5: Do you work with people of all fitness levels and do you cater for elite wheelchair athletes?

We welcome people of all abilities and fitness levels, and also have clients with no disability attend our classes. Everyone taking part in the workouts is in charge of their own levels; they determine how hard they work depending on the range of the movements performed. This enables everyone to work together yet all working at different levels of intensity.

The main focus, however, is for ‘ordinary’ people – people who want to improve their overall fitness levels, improve their independence, abilities and energy levels. Whilst we may be a stepping stone for aspiring elite wheelchair athletes, there is already support and quality coaching for elite athletes.

Q 6: Have you had any particularly proud moments through your work?

There have been many moments throughout my work that have left me with a feeling of pride. My work has resulted in my becoming an ambassador for the national disability charity Scope, who I am elated to say I shall be running for as a Golden Bond Runner in London Marathon 2016. Earlier this year through my involvement with Scope I was invited to attend a reception at 10 Downing Street and I also performed a show at Westminster Hall.

However, the proudest moments have been seeing the achievements of some of my clients since coming to the classes. This year I have seen several of them cross the finish lines of their first ever sporting events: three completing half-marathons and four completing relays in this year’s first ever mass participation ParaTri at Dorney Lake. People from 25 years of age to 65 having faith in themselves and their abilities, and faith in me, to not only say ‘I can do it’ but to also say ‘I did it’.

Q 7: What’s next?

We are now embarking on becoming a training provider to be able to create new instructors around the country to roll the classes out nationally. In the meantime, we have brought out a home exercise DVD of the aerobics class Wheel-Fit Level 1 to give more people access to our style of exercise. This is now being joined this week with the Wheel-Spin DVD which is an intense wheelchair workout for people who use wheelchair training rollers for exercise.

Our aim is to bring out Wheel-Fit Level 2 in the new year and also a gentle mobility workout too. £1 from every DVD sold is donated to Scope