Joanne O’Riordan: Let’s remove the hurdles to getting more exercise

We take fitness for granted, but many with disabilities have difficulty accessing facilities

While I used my laziness as an excuse to hide from exercise or working out, the truth is I just hadn’t found what suited me and my body. Photograph: Getty Images

Like everyone, I waved goodbye to 2020 with my tiny left hand and whizzed off into 2021. Like everyone, I started to write down a list of goals I hoped to achieve in 365 days. I sat down with heaps and heaps of self-help books, habit-making books and psychology books (I obviously left them idle to watch the darts with my family).

So on my list are personal and professional goals, with the main goal of exercising more, whatever the hell that means. I watched some documentary on Netflix about the diets and lifestyle of people who have reached 100 years old and more. The main thing to follow, according to Dr Valter Longho, was that exercise doesn't need to be as stimulating as you think, with one old Italian man – he had lived through every pandemic and war – saying he walks 20 minutes a day to his local bar to have a glass of vino. I can get behind that.

So, as I laid out my yoga mat, ready to understand why Shakira is right when my aching hips weren't lying about the pain, I had a kind of epiphany. I'm one of many people who take access to exercise for granted. There are so many people living with disabilities in Ireland who do not have access to exercise that I have.

Firstly, I have a PA, and decent housemates, who are willing to sit for 35 minutes while I stretch, grunt, die and wheeze on my mat (it’s called yoga). I’m fortunate I’ve an incredible yogi who basically has to teach me how not to be a lazy slob. These are things that aren’t a given for many people, and for me that is a shame.



Even if that dreaded virus wasn't roaming our streets at the moment, many people with disabilities struggle to get to the actual facility. Often, people with disabilities don't drive or have immediate access to a car, and relying on public transport isn't exactly the most fun experience on the planet. Add to that, the facility itself may not be as accessible as it should be. Sure, there is excellent work being done by the Cara Centre to ensure this isn't a situation, but it really shouldn't take an organisation to make people realise how important access is.

Think of outdoor activities. Your local park, your forestry, your beach – how many of these free and local amenities every day discriminate those who need them most? Again, plenty of work is being done, but a collaborative effort is necessary from birth to... well, forever.

Even from school time, during PE, as much as my teachers tried to make it work, it was a bit odd that while my peers did the dreaded beep test, I just had to up the speed on my wheelchair, obviously reigning supreme. And then there was the awkwardness of team sports. What if I got hit in the head with a football? Was it fair to always put me in goals? The end result was either me being relegated to a spectator or stretch my muscles as a dictator and be a referee during these games.

The expectation was placed on me early on that I couldn’t do these things, so why bother trying. That’s not to say my teachers didn’t get creative, but how can you keep 30 other children entertained while I threw mini beanbags through a hoop? As a result, that label unnecessarily placed upon me that I couldn’t participate in exercise soon spread throughout the community. They all tried, absolutely, but the facilities weren’t there, the willingness to get creative can only last so long, and eventually, there comes a time where you give up and just sit and eat twenty bags of Taytos.


So, while all my beloved fitspo Instagrammers are fine-tuning their at-home workouts, I can only encourage them to think about those outside your target audience, if not from a social commitment point of view, at least use it as a way to further monetise your business.

If it honestly was not for yoga, I guarantee you I would still not be active. I don’t have to run through the list of physical reasons, but the reasons for my mental health far outweigh the positives from a physical point of view. Add to that the social reasons. I have a great relationship with all my instructors, and we talk about absolutely anything.

While I used my laziness as an excuse to hide from exercise or working out, the truth is I just hadn’t found what suited me and my body. If those involved in the fitness industry, at government level and everyone in between, paid more attention, they too would remove the hurdles so we can all have a free, easy run.