Keeping Fit

I bounced off something large, squashy and hairy yesterday. In the local swimming pool. No, not an abandoned elastoplast, thank goodness. Someone's stomach, belonging to a small, round man doing breadths on his back.

Well, it is another way of increasing my circle of acquaintances, I suppose. But I had no idea where that stomach had been. Did it belong to someone I'd have spoken to if we'd met fully clothed? Mind you, it wasn't as awful as climbing into someone else's knickers! On that occasion, I had miscounted the cubicles as I returned to the changing room. Oh yes, when it comes to embarrassments at swimming pools, I've been there, done that, no longer have the knickers.

And this brings me to my topic. Keeping fit. Not always that easy, especially as one gets older and middle age spread becomes more of a landslide. And certainly not easy for the likes of me. Yes, I know there are blind people out there running marathons or yomping across sodden, misty Scottish moors. Probably, as I sit typing this, there's someone circumnavigating the globe in a talking yacht, alone except for a guide dolphin off their port bow. But I'm living in a rural hinterland, surrounded by hills, cheap golf just across the town and local sailing clubs desperate for members. That's part of my problem, this is rural Scotland many miles away from centres of technological innovation. I can't expect a tiny sailing club to cough up the cost of a talking compass for the exclusive use of an occasional lady sailor and her dog. Somewhere in the Home Counties there may well be a tennis club equipped with a laser system which allows the visually impaired to home in on lobs and volleys just like Andy Murray but such a club will cater for dozens instead of a handful.

So what's to do? I could stay in; try to really understand this computer and for relaxation, listen to a pile of talking books with a big bowl of crisps and a gin and tonic. Only venturing out with Mr. Dog on the odd foray down to the Co-op. But it wouldn't be healthy and Mr. Dog would get bored. I proved this when my last guide dog died suddenly and I was relying on friends to get out and about. In a few months, I was wearing trackie bottoms. Nothing else in the wardrobe fitted. So, despite having been the sort of teenager who actually preferred Latin to sport, I decided something had to be done. Don't tell anyone, but I found the perfect solution to having to play hockey in a Scottish winter, I broke someone's nose with a hockey stick! Accidentally, I hasten to add. However, this was proof enough that my eyesight made me a liability on the hockey pitch and from then on, I relaxed in the school library, translating the more risque bits out of Tacitus.

Now, I'd imagine any rotund wee wifie of a certain age who presents herself at a sporting establishment and asks if she can participate faces a credibility gap. This is Scotland, after all. However, if said wee wifie is waving a white stick around, then you really are putting everyone on the spot. Remember, one of the most restrictive aspects of a disability is the way others react. When my eyesight became so bad that I only ventured into the local swimming pool when it was very quiet, one of the lifeguards suggested that I should come along to the disabled swimming club. Initially the reaction of some of the members was, “Whit's that wumman daein here? She can swim fine!” The lady lifeguard pointed out that, although I could swim, I couldn't see and soon I was accepted. I kept to a lane next to the side and whenever any of the other regulars saw me approaching, they just bellowed a warning. So it has continued and any new swimmers are told about me. Mr. Squashy must either have been a visitor or a new recruit. But in the decade or so in which I've been spluttering up and down the pool,only one other visually impaired swimmer has joined the class. There must be others out there. I can recommend doing hand stands down at the deep end, especially combined with somersaults. Then you really haven't a clue which way is up!

So, when my husband dragged me over to the leisure centre, not for a swim, but to join the gym, I was all prepared. If need be, I'd stomp about and quote the DDA. But it didn't come to that. It was decided that as well as the standard introductory session, I'd have to have six sessions with one of the staff present. So I had to spend hours in the company of young, muscular chaps. Most entertaining! A muscular youth would set up each machine for me and tell me all the gossip and goings-on of the area. Frequently, he'd comment, “Aye, ye're daein fine.” At least he never added, “for your age.”

The trainers were intrigued as to why I wanted to get fit, so I explained that I needed to be fit to train with my next guide dog.

“Dae they no jist bring him doon here? Ye ken where yer gan roon here.”

I explained that I'd be training in Glasgow; out every day, no matter the weather and they were aghast.

“They tak blin folk tae glasgow. Dump them in a strange place and jist mak them walk!”

I tried to explain that such intense training in a different environment was good for one's confidence but to no avail. All these muscular young men were very concerned.

However, once I'd managed my six sessions without being carted off to Intensive Care, it was decided that I could go along whenever I liked. As long as I had a companion. And that suits me fine; I can attend with either my husband or any friend who, like me, is campaigning in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Dog meanwhile, loafs around down in the office.

Some of you will be incensed at that last remark. “What! That poor soul isn't allowed alone into the gym! What an infringement of her rights!” Don't be ridiculous. The gym has lots of stuff down at floor level; rowing machines and various instruments of torture which involve contorting oneself about on mats, sweating. I don't want to fall over any of that. Nor do I wish to poke some poor chap in an embarrassing place with my cane just as he completes some difficult and strenuous exercise. I find my visits to the gym much less stressful with a companion than I ever would if I was all on my own. And this would be the case even if the leisure centre was able to have staff on duty there at all times. Such a person would be there to help everyone, not to be monopolised by me. In many ways, working out on the range of machines to be found in a gym is ideal for the visually impaired. Once you're in position and the levels have been adjusted, you're away! The exception for me is the running machine. I find walking so fast with neither Dog nor someone's arm alongside quite unnerving. Otherwise, I tackle bikes, weights etc. with the best of them. I doubt if I'll ever be a size 12 again but we all need an ambition, don't we?

© Charlotte Bennie 2008