Isn’t it strange that wheelchair fitness isn’t entirely understood in a lot of able-bodied circles? The idea that wheelchair fitness can have a positive social impact seems to drift through the fingers like sand on occasion.
Yet health and fitness have a tremendous impact on many aspects of life. Let’s look at some of the ways a focus on wheelchair fitness can have a broader reach and positive social impact now.
The tangible benefits of keeping people healthy are well documented. Through better health provision, we can lower the cost of health overall. By using exercise and sport as a preventative measure, we reduce the risk of obesity and disease. It can improve cancer and surgery recovery times. We also know that people that exercise are often less stressed and better able to manage mental health conditions.
The World Health Organisation estimates 1.9 million deaths a year are caused by physical inactivity. Using data from 2013, Sydney University found that physical inactivity costs $67.5 billion USD (or $90 billion Australian) globally. In Australia, this cost of physical inactivity was estimated to be $805 million. $640 million in direct costs and $165 million went to productivity losses.
For the wheelchair community, health outcomes determine life expectancy, quality of life and whether complications are a regular feature of the everyday.
Having a focus on wheelchair fitness means reducing the risk of injury, improving overall health and lowering risks such as obesity related illness, diabetes and heart disease. Cancer has been linked to higher levels of inactivity, obesity and ill-health, another reason to keep exercising as part of risk reduction. It also means increasing stamina and fitness to provide autonomy for the wheelchair user. The stronger you are, the less likely you are to hurt yourself going about your daily business.
The positive social impact here means reducing the cost of healthcare by encouraging everyone, not just those that can walk or ride a bicycle, to consider a healthy lifestyle. Not to mention preventing loss of life and improving quality of life in the process.
Fixing the pointy end of the problem
One of the issues Briometrix has faced in our exchanges with interested parties and investors is that they see our wheelchair fitness app and navability feature as helping people in wheelchairs. It does. But the trickle down doesn’t end there.
If you make streets safer for people in wheelchairs, it also becomes easier for parents with prams and small children. Or the elderly. Or people with other disabilities. It also moves us towards thinking about a wider perspective when we build and design public and private infrastructure.
In short, if you fit the shoe on the wheelchair navigation problem, you can fit a whole lot of other people as well.
Wheelchair fitness also has the same trickle-down effect. For example, if you encourage kids in wheelchairs to consider fitness, get into sport and instil a can-do attitude, you help raise more resilient adults of the future. You also reduce the excuses for other kids not to embrace their inner bad ass and get into sport, fitness and exercise.
If we start seeing fitness in broader terms and reinventing our relationship with exercise from a position where we view individual limitations and goals as standard, we empower people to feel better about sport. We help them uncover their own version of self.
It’s not about disability inspiration porn or marvelling at the feet of elite athletes. It’s about thinking around corners to find ways to make sport and exercise more accessible to all.
Why can’t wheelchair fitness and elite athletes be the ones that are leading by example when it comes to fitness? Not just for the future of wheelchair users, but to also challenge the wider community to action?
Positive mental health outcomes
In research conducted by peak mental health body, Beyond Blue, they found 45% of Australians will face a mental health crisis in their lifetime. 11% of people with physical disabilities in Australia also have some kind of mental health condition.
We know that exercise can improve the body and the mind. Mental health treatment plans include taking breaks, getting outside and regular exercise.
You don’t have to be doing yoga to receive strong benefits from sport and fitness on a mental health level. It’s been proven that the chemistry in our brain is triggered into a positive result with exercise. Stretching helps us. Getting your sweat on helps reduce nervous tension and lowers the impact of stress. By exercising as part of a well-balanced plan, people in stressful situations can also lower their susceptibility to acquired mental health conditions. Whether the stress if from work, daily life or recovery, exercise helps keep anyone’s head on straight.
Mental health impacts aren’t only about the physical chemicals released. So too does connecting with nature and getting into new environments. This not only stimulates the awe-affect as well as positive health through fresh air and exercise, it’s also proven to stimulate creativity and a sense of wellbeing.
Reducing the impact of social exclusion
Exercise, sport and wheelchair fitness can help bridge the gap to social exclusion. The positive social impact is through connecting with community.
Sport has a rich tradition of connecting people. It brings us together in teams to play rugby and basketball. It gives us new things to share with racers, swimmers and judo enthusiasts. From the Paralympics to the skate parks, wheelchair sports give the connectivity, camaraderie and healthy outlet for competition all humans crave.
Even if adventuring or elite sports or getting into a team isn’t your thing, wheelchair fitness puts people in the frame. If you know you will burn out going to see New Year’s Eve fireworks, maybe you’ll stay at home instead, sans friends. If you’re unsure if your body is fit enough to travel, you may never get to Paris. If you lack the confidence to get around safely and without injury, it starts taking a lot of things off the table.
What about the next generation of wheelchair kids? In the UK, a study of students found 60% of children with disabilities are likely to experience bullying and social exclusion. That’s compared to 25% for their able-bodied peers. In the USA, children with disabilities are 2 to 3 times more likely to experience bullying than their fellow students.
Their fitness determines how much they can play with their peers. It may even influence their parent’s decision-making processes in what they are permitted to do. Heck, it could be the difference between a kid in a wheelchair having the confidence to try a lot of things in life. Not to mention giving a child with disabilities the resilience and self confidence to cope with such social exclusion.
Bullying increases the risk of social isolation and exclusion. Loneliness feeds the stigma while increasing the risk of mental health conditions and even thoughts of suicide.
There’s a gift you can give someone when they understand their body more. It outlines what is possible and where the potential limitations may be. By empowering individuals to better understand their wheelchair fitness, you give them autonomy. You empower people to feel within society as opposed to being on the outside, looking in. It can give them something to be confident about when the naysayers attack. Or even something to silence them completely.
Improving wheelchair fitness improves lives
Imagine a world where people were all exercising and into sport and how less stressed, unhealthy and better able to work as a team we’d all be. Consider the possibility that travel bring to the world in understanding and connecting with people and cultures. As Brene Brown says, leaning in with others gives you the ability to humanise them again. To rip off those labels and see a person as a funny, warm, talented person instead of a label is a powerful thing. Add to that the benefit of connecting a more compassionate society that has less loneliness and actively works to reduce the potential for stress and/or acquired mental health conditions.
Sounds magical, doesn’t it?