Disability and the Gym: Let My Body Do the Work

Feature image via Shutterstock

After my spinal fusion surgery nine years ago, I started going to the gym. It seemed like the logical choice once physical therapy wrapped up; I needed to continue my regimen, especially in those early days, and knew I would stick to it better in a dedicated space. I’m nowhere near disciplined enough to buy my own exercise ball and actually use it. Get me a membership, though, and I’ll work out five or six times in a good week. People always seem surprised by that. I know because they all react the same way whenever I mention it: “What do you do at the gym?”

I’ve never heard anyone ask my able-bodied friends that question. No one cares about their gym routines because they’re kind of expected to be there. But cerebral palsy is not. Bring that to the gym, and you’re suddenly out of context in a big way.

We all know gyms aren’t exactly kind to interesting bodies. Mine has a varied clientele, but it’s still no secret that I’m not its target audience. You might assume Gym People are the problem because they constantly interrogate or stare at me. And yes, every woman gets to know those sensations pretty well. But really, only one guy has ever interrupted my workout to “just ask, if I can… what happened?” and respond with “but I’m a doctor!” when I told him no. More often, the space itself sends reminders: posters demanding that I “be relentless” and “keep pushing,” machines I straight-up can’t use (“lumbar extension”? NO THANKS), the fact that I had to buy my own pedal straps for the stationary bike. Small things add up to a feeling in the air that this place and I don’t quite belong together.

My body is relentless, but not in the way gyms want it to be. It doesn’t fit the tidy redemption narratives they sell. No amount of core work or circuit training will remove the metal from my spine and make my orthotics unnecessary. Those aren’t matters of my personal commitment, but of my structure. So when even the most generous gyms promise that I’ll “see results,” I have to raise an eyebrow. My muscle mass has a (pretty low) ceiling. The screws and scars are here to stay. I’ll limp and wobble no matter how often I stand on the BOSU ball. I can’t get attached to visible outcomes because I will never be the “after” picture.

I wish I could say that realization unlocked a purist relationship with exercise, but not long after I started working out regularly, the opposite happened. I obsessed over regaining ability post-surgery. The spinal issues had come on so suddenly and gutted me so completely—think two months of existing on my stomach thanks to blazing nerve pain—that I couldn’t imagine surviving a repeat. So I turned to working out for protection, insurance against my body ever betraying me again. Yes, I had cerebral palsy, but I’ll be damned if I was going to let it make me weak. I held on for dear life to what I could still do. In short, I bought into the gym thing as much as someone in my position can. It helped me feel in control. But it also dredged up some appalling thoughts, particularly around my body type and weight. I had to keep exercising because I didn’t want to become disabled and fat—or, worse, more disabled because I was fat.

Ableism is one sneaky bitch.

Disability makes it so easy to disconnect from your body. I don’t mean in the meditative way—in the “utter alienation” way. Because it completely upends the predictability we expect from that relationship. You know your body will change, but you assume it’s with age and in a way you’ve seen before; throw in a disability, though, and that deal is off. You might feel fine one day and the next, turns out you needed surgery six months ago. Or your disability can express itself the exact same way for years, decades, your whole life. Your body gets to set the agenda and make its own choices. Sometimes you have to fight those choices to get anything done, and sometimes you have to roll with them. But trusting your body becomes a tall order. It’s like knowing your house is built on a fault line.

Exercise did help me find my body again, but not at the gym or even on a yoga mat. I had to go to the bottom of a cave.

When my family traveled to Mérida last year, we heard that one of nearby caves was “pretty accessible” and included guided tours along a pathway. Stupidly, I imagined something like an underground beach boardwalk in there. It was, of course, a cave; the closest thing to a boardwalk was an uneven staircase leading into the mouth and some flood lights every few feet. The rest of the way was all natural. So as the group marched on, I grabbed my dad’s arm and hoped for the best. The idea that this day would only require light-to-moderate exertion seemed increasingly doubtful. And sure enough, our guide announced that we were now 130 feet below the ground had to start climbing back up.

Oh, right—getting out. No one else could finish that job. It was either climb up or establish residency in that cave. And I couldn’t think myself to the surface; I needed my body. I had contained, preserved, and monitored it so well at the gym. Now I had to use it. And that understanding meant I didn’t have time to fear it anymore.

Being disabled can feel, in a lot of ways, like living in the future. There’s not much room for error when your body turns the world into an obstacle course. So you learn to think ahead, always ask “what if?”, and prepare for all outcomes. You don’t really have the luxury of the “here and now.” If we walk toward a staircase together, you can bet I’ve sized it up and devised a complete attack plan before you even realize it’s there. All that anticipation can take up a lot of space and not leave much for enjoyment. The bar for success becomes “that didn’t hurt me”—not “that was fun.”

Climbing out of that cave was fun because I got to do it in real time. I had to turn off the prognosticator and just go. Trust that it—that I—was going to work. It reminded me of playing sports as a kid, learning how my body moved but not yet doubting it. I loved that I got truly, disgustingly sweaty. I loved that it was hard and that I had to try. (Nobody really expects disabled people to try things.) I loved that I could feel everything, even if it hurt. My body belonged to me rather than the other way around.

It’s not that I suddenly “felt able” or “escaped my confines” (which is how able-bodied people love to frame our physical achievements), but the opposite. I didn’t escape or change a thing; I experienced my body as it is. Got fully inside it rather than worrying about it. And everything I found there—my curved back, my skinny legs, even my pain—felt essential and useful. I wouldn’t want to get away.

The last thing our guide said to me before the goodbyes was “you are a tough girl.” I like toughness because it acknowledges an uncomfortable, complicated truth—that being disabled is hard—but rejects pity as an acceptable response. Instead, it gives my body credit for outlasting, adapting, and thriving in ways able-bodied people can’t imagine. I took that credit with me back to the gym. I don’t exercise for safety anymore; I do it to feel my body and remember that it is mine. What that means has changed before and will change again, but I’m not afraid. Because when that sneaky bitch tries to come back, I look around and remind myself: you are, in fact, the toughest one here. They wouldn’t last a day.

Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in DC by way of Los Angeles and has a conflicted relationship with social media, but you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram anyway.

Carrie has written 81 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I haven’t yet worked up the courage to buy a gym membership. There are so many things that I can’t do that buying a gym membership seems futile. I can’t ride one of the standing bikes and I definitely can’t use a treadmill.

    But this makes me feel one step closer to entering that scary building full of able-bodied people who have no idea what it’s like to be unable to even run to catch the bus.

    • Literally missed a train today for that same reason. And hey, the gym isn’t necessarily the space for everybody (obviously I question whether it’s even for me sometimes), but if it’s someplace you want to explore I’m happy to have encouraged you in whatever small way. We have as much of a right to be there and take up space as anyone.

  2. You make it all seem easy. Not the body part, the writing part!
    Bold, fearless prose, disguised as effortless (I know it isn’t).
    You’re a marvel and a model, Carrie. Keep writing. We’re here
    to read.

  3. It’s nice to see an article on the challenge of working out for those of us not able to do it. I have a disability placard for my car that my doctor got for me because I Have POT’s, if you don’t know what that is you’re not alone because my doctor wasn’t sure at first. Basically it means that I look just fine, but when I stand up, or sometimes just sit up, my heart rate speeds up and I can pass out. It makes exercise incredibly difficult as most exercise involves trying to raise your heart rate. I’m not brave enough to go to a gym, but I do have a recumbent bike at home. And you can bet if I’m out I’ve worked out how far I can walk, and if there are any steps. Of course sometimes it’s just a bad day and my energy is gone before I try to do anything, and that’s when I am trying to accept to go with the flow and just relax.

    Well done to you for working out so often. Keep up the good work!

  4. Carrie,
    Thank you for sharing your life experience in a way that is deeply personal and relatable. Your writing speaks to a big truth you have learned about yourself that resonates with me. Looking forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  5. As someone with arthritis and other physical limitations, I’m really struggling against internalizing the idea that I am at the gym to push myself, improve, lose weight, etc. When I operate that way, the pain gets worse, so it isn’t food for my body any longer. Reading this piece is really helping me to recommit to trying to use exercise be in my body instead of change it.

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