Functional Fitness: Finding Fun at the Intersection of Movement and Disability
To say that 30 plus years of life with cerebral palsy have given me a complex relationship with movement would be an understatement.
From my earliest memories, physical and occupational therapists have been among the more important figures in my life--something I mean as a high compliment. And while I truly have great love and respect for the therapists who have played such a huge role in my life and the physical therapy professions as a whole, I’m just as sure that I am not the first person with a disability who has struggled to find themselves trapped in a health culture that often tells us that we need to fit into the world’s definition of function and independence, instead of encouraging the world to become more adaptable and inclusive.
Those with cerebral palsy typically use three to five times more energy for even the simplest daily tasks. Movement is hard for us. And for me, one of the unintentional outcomes of a childhood that focused a lot on movement and physical ability was a growing hatred for it as it was forced upon me. This isn’t to say that I didn’t do what I needed to for my health. As I reached adulthood and better understood the impact of my choices on my quality of life, I became a willing participant in many forms of therapy and exercise (even to the point of attempting the Disney Princess Half Marathon in 2013). Over the years I’ve been the beneficiary of some truly excellent care, which I don’t take for granted as quality care isn’t always the case for an “aging” CP patient. Nonetheless, I still failed to understand what it was that so many people enjoy about exercise and viewed it as a necessary evil.
Enter CrossFit in early 2019. After going through an intense period of personal change, I decided to also attempt to change up my fitness routine. Why? I’m not sure. I found Aero, a Tampa-area CrossFit box (as CrossFit gyms are called) that offers an adaptive functional fitness program based on CrossFit’s philosophy of using “constantly varied movements performed at high intensity” to increase aerobic capacity and overall fitness levels. It was at Aero, working with a licensed physical therapist, and with the support of a truly inclusive community made up of those with and without disabilities, that I have spent the majority of the last two years learning to love fitness, and more importantly, my uniquely capable body, cerebral palsy and all.
I’ve gone from struggling to lift two pounds to being able to manage 50 plus pounds or more depending on the type of lift. I’ve also gone from hardly moving out of my wheelchair to daily challenging myself to master (and sometimes even invent) exercises that pushed my body to new limits – all-the-while learning to respect and appreciate the natural limits of my body in a new way.
In addition, the effects of my new journey have gone beyond appreciating exercise. I’ve completely changed my relationship to food in a way that encourages me to eat things that nourish my body without feeling like I’m restricted to a “diet.” I’ve lost 30 pounds and counting since I started CrossFit and I’ve gained a fair amount of physical strength and even greater confidence. Further, that strength and confidence has carried over to areas outside of the gym and been a catalyst --along with counseling, a new spiritual journey, and other supports-- for a mental change that is perhaps deeper than the physical. Whereas previously in life I struggled with internalizing society’s view of disability as weakness, functional fitness has become an avenue through which I am not only more physically strong and independent but have begun to see myself that way mentally as well.
The positive changes that my journey cemented for me have been particularly helpful during the pandemic-era we find ourselves in. It’s amazingly easy, as a person who has to sit the majority of the time, to not move. But, because of the mental shift from physical activity being something I “have” to do, to something I truly want to do, I have found myself better able to maintain my workout habits, even during times as stressful as these, than I would have if the situation was the same even two years ago. In fact, I’ve found myself so eager to continue the positive strides I’ve made, that I’ve used some of the time provided by quarantine to further my own fitness knowledge, with the ultimate goal of eventually training other adaptive athletes.
Because of CrossFit’s emphasis on using functional movements to build capacity and scale to every person -- which is built into functional fitness’ philosophy -- I’ve found it to be an excellent program as a person with CP. I truly think anyone can benefit from functional fitness! My encouragement to all would be to try it at least once. If you decide it’s not right for you, that’s okay. If there’s one thing I hope to do on my journey, it’s to encourage others, disabled or not, to find the things that make them feel like the best versions of themselves -- especially when society tries to limit that self-expression. For me, functional fitness feels purposeful and healthy. For someone else, that feeling might come from dancing or boxing. Or maybe from a poetry club, art class, or a million other things. The “what” of it doesn’t matter much, but never doubt your ability to pursue it.
For those interested in learning more about adaptive and functional fitness, the following resources may be of help:
Adaptive Training Academy, which offers an Adaptive Inclusive Trainer Certification as well as other adaptive fitness education related resources.
Wheelwod, a platform focused on giving coaches/athletes tools & resources to create competitive adaptive athletes.
Staying Driven, which offers various virtual adaptive fitness opportunities.