Working out how to include everyone in exercise classes

Best friends cater for all abilities with their online exercise classes

Apart from the most dedicated among us, most people will have a bit of a moan at the thought of working out. We would prefer if we could feel fit and healthy, both mentally and physically, without having to get into a sweat in the process.

But imagine how much we would long for an exercise class if there was nothing available for us and every session was geared towards people with totally different abilities from our own.

This is exactly what Niamh Cleary and Sarah Kerrigan considered when they came up with the idea to start an inclusive exercise class online, so everyone, regardless of how able bodied they were, could take part. Together, the 26-year-old lifelong friends have all the experience needed to run a course of this sort.

Niamh, who was a competitive gymnast when she was younger, recently changed jobs but previously managed Kilkenny Gymnastics Academy and also started teaching Pilates online. While, Sarah, who was born with a stump as a left arm and a short right leg, is working towards a certificate in strength and condition for special populations, has a degree in sports and exercise management and runs


Since April of this year, she has also been working with Swim Ireland as a consultant on its participation team and is also developing a programme for Special Olympic athletes to build up their strength and general fitness before they begin an open water training programme.

So the pair, who both have a keen interest in sports and exercise, have the ideal background for their new venture.

"In January 2021, myself and Sarah were on a walk, discussing the inclusive workout she had just filmed for her YouTube channel and we started talking about the huge lack of inclusive exercise, even though there is such a large community and need for it," says Niamh. "We felt with our diverse skill range, and long cemented friendship, we would be the perfect team to start to change this.

“The classes are pre-recorded and uploaded on social media platforms for easy access and also to allow people to do it in their own time and we want to provide general fitness classes, as well as more specialised ones. For example, we are currently recording a six-week inclusive Pilates course and the first video is already available on YouTube.

“There are alternative movements given, and repetitions are optional. We try to give as many options as we can, knowing that one size does not fit all and hope that everyone can find a part of the class which suits them, gets them moving and, most importantly, makes them feel good. Everything is online at the moment, but we are open to providing some in-person classes and if that would benefit even a small number of people, we would be delighted.”

We want our inclusive classes to create a community of like-minded people who can work out, chat and enjoy themselves, without anyone being left out

Niamh says inclusivity is so important in every aspect of life and they are thrilled to be able to play their part in reaching anyone who wants to exercise but hasn’t always been in a position to do so.

“Having inclusive classes enables everyone to discover what they enjoy and allows them to make exercise a part of their daily lives,” she says. “We hope to open the doors of exercise to a wider audience, so everyone feels included and welcome, just as Sarah, me and our wider group of friends have always supported and encouraged each other to take part in fitness and exercise.

“In fact, Sarah has never let anything stop her doing this – she is truly inspiring. But there are times when we must make our own adaptations and changes so, together, we want to have classes readily available for people, so that they don’t need to think about these changes.

“The classes will be there for entire groups of friends to take part in and enjoy, regardless of their abilities. And aside from just having the physical benefits of exercise, we want our inclusive classes to create a community of like-minded people who can work out, chat and enjoy themselves, without anyone being left out.”

Sarah knows only too well the importance of inclusivity and says that while society is changing for the better and has “come a long way in terms of inclusion and accessibility”, there is still some way to go.

“I believe that we have a good bit more to do to make the world more inclusive and accessible,” she says. “As a person with a perceived disability, if I had to pick one thing to encourage inclusivity in society, it would be that people learn to see past a condition and view the person as a person, just like they would with anyone else.

“In some cases, the differences are very apparent, like, for example, it is clear that I’m missing part of my arm and that I walk with a limp. But why does that mean I should be treated differently from anyone else? Niamh and I are of a similar age with similar interests, we don’t look the same, as most people don’t, but why should we be treated different from each other? I totally understand that people can be daunted by disability or unsure of how to act around it which is why I think that if people learn to see past the condition and interact with others with additional needs on a human level, it can make encounters a lot easier on both ends.”

And while the Dublin woman knows what it is like to feel alienated, she says tackling the issue head on is the best way of dealing with it.

“In the past when I have come up against a lack of inclusivity, I or those with me always address the issue with the relevant parties and work towards rectifying it together,” she says. “More often than not I’ve been greeted with a willingness to help and learn but there are rare occasions when, for whatever reason, some people are not open to accommodating my needs and that hurts more than anyone could imagine. But everyone’s story with accessibility and inclusivity is different and, speaking from my own personal experiences, they have, for the most part, been quite positive.

“I do think however, that the fitness industry is one that lacks inclusivity on a very fundamental level and that’s why myself and Niamh started these classes. The industry is heavily focused on aesthetics and if you don’t look or operate in a specific way, you’re kind of left out in the cold with very few resources to avail of.

“I would like to see this change for the better over the next few years, and I definitely think it is beginning to, which is great. I think it makes sense to cater for the needs of people with disabilities, not only on an individual level for their own health and wellbeing but on a larger scale too as it means this demographic is more active, more independent, and less reliant on the healthcare system. Everyone benefits when we create a more inclusive society.”