It would be a fallacious expection to believe you’ll only ever encounter non-disabled clientele in your career in the fitness industry. One possibility is being asked to coach visually impaired clients.
As a personal trainer at a large community center, I am fortunate to be able to work with a variety of professionals, each of whom is certified and has somewhat of a “specialty favorite” client he or she prefers to train. One of these is a former Golden Gloves champion who likes to, literally, throw punches into a client’s workout routine. We have Body Alignment specialists, those who enjoy preparing athletes for marathons or sprint events, and even trainers who are gifted enough to work with our population of mentally challenged young people.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the majority of trainers across the country find themselves working with those whom we might classify as the “typical” fitness clients. Many of these are young moms, retired seniors, or athletic men and women wanting to become a bit more buff before Spring Break at the beach.
While every client is indeed unique, and deserves our most attentive creativity when designing a program to foster his/her goals, rarely are we presented with an opportunity to truly think outside the box, and change an individual’s life. Trainers encourage clients to challenge their abilities every day, so why are many of us hesitant to challenge ourselves?
The Challenge of the Visually Impaired Clients
Many persons with limited sight capabilities, most notably those who have been blind since birth, get little or no exercise, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here is a sobering statistic (which we as trainers have the power to change, by the way!): only about 50 percent of adults with visual impairment are physically active.
Of that group, 50 percent were more likely to report at least one chronic health condition than challenged adults who do participate in physical activity. Chronic/comorbid health conditions often include diabetes, heart disease and risk of stroke. Interestingly, 82 percent of visually compromised adults were more likely to be physically active if the suggestion or urging comes from a medical professional.
A big hurdle for many is simply securing a means of transportation to and from the gym. In addition, there is often trepidation surrounding the fear of injury, which goes hand in hand with a lack of available information regarding helpful exercise resources. This is precisely how a trainer who is well-versed in the dynamics of working with a blind client becomes a highly valued commodity.
I have had the opportunity to train a woman in her 50’s who is visually impaired. Laura was not born sightless; over a period of several years, her eyes’ rods and cones slowly ceased to function. Today, while unable to drive, she has enough sight to observe shadows, and can read with a super magnifier attachment to her computer. When Laura’s regular trainer left the gym, I was the one she requested to take over her personal training regimen.
At first, I was understandably hesitant, not knowing quite what to expect in terms of this client’s capabilities or willingness to be challenged. As it turned out, I not only gained a good friend but also a tremendous insight into the depth of Laura’s rich, fulfilling, and exciting life.
How to Train Visually Impaired Clients
Taking the time to learn about a client’s condition is always a prudent investment of a trainer’s energies. Keeping in mind that the body of a client living with visual impairments is typically no different than yours or mine, his exercise needs too will be similar.
A comprehensive workout program, one that addresses both fitness and nutritional guidance, helps prevent obesity, improves overall health, and leaves the client with a sense of empowerment, according to the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, or NCPAD. Unless told otherwise, by either the client or his doctor, a visually impaired person can engage in many formats of exercise as long as appropriate accommodations are available.
Once you have assessed the individual needs of the client, as well as noting their current lifestyle and overall goals, you can proceed with the fun and challenging job of designing an outside-the-box program. American Fitness points out that an individual who is totally blind cannot relate to visual descriptions; therefore, he must be taught exercise activities differently from a client who has some visual ability.
With the client’s permission, the trainer may have to use touch to demonstrate a movement. A second challenge is to ensure the safety and efficacy of the training environment. As opposed to running outdoors with a partner, a visually impaired client may prefer instead to become familiar with the parameters of an indoor track, thus enabling him to adapt to his aerobic exercise without a guide.
If building strength and increasing muscle tone is a goal of the client, the trainer has many options. One of the safest and most comfortable ways to strength-train is by creating a circuit of stationary machines. Depending upon the level of impairment, free weights and other techniques may be an option. Dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, and body balls can all be creatively and effectively woven into a program for a visually impaired individual, as long as the trainer “demonstrates” a movement by guiding the client’s arm position for the first few repetitions.
Verbal cues also become an important tool in training these clients. Think carefully about the best ways to describe the execution of particular movements. Once that neural pathway has been created, the movement becomes relatively intuitive, especially with repetition.
It has been my experience that balance and flexibility are concerns to be addressed in a complete exercise program. I often have my client Laura perform bodyweight squats, side lunges with the outstretched leg briefly lifted, and push-ups. In an effort to develop a sense of self-efficacy in the realm of spatial awareness, balancing on one foot or performing walking high knee raises across the room can increase body awareness and movement in space.
A secondary condition that often presents itself in visually challenged clients is poor posture. When trying to design appropriate strength exercises, keep in mind that a client who is able to read printed material with the help of a magnifier is often prone to stooping over. Cable crossovers or rows, to open up the chest muscles and strengthen back muscles, can easily be hands-on demonstrated and effectively performed.
In today’s society, visual impairment frequently places such individuals at a social disadvantage; to those with healthy vision, blindness comes with presumptions of helplessness and incompetence. This no longer has to be a universal fact. Any individual who gets in shape will look better and feel better. This leads to increased confidence, self-esteem and empowerment.
Consider how important these aspects can be for any of your clients; now think about the magnitude of this dynamic when training a visually impaired client. The ultimate goal of inclusiveness is to help a new participant feel safe and welcome enough to return, so that he is fully able to reap the benefits of a sustained exercise program.
As for my client, Laura? I truly believe that although she is the one who is significantly limited in her visual ability, we both have been given the gift of seeing life more clearly!