A balancing act

  • Fitness
  • Sunday, 11 Dec 2011

Fitness programmes specially tailored for people in special circumstances.

SIX years ago, Yeap Ai-Ling suffered a slipped disc. She couldn’t walk properly, was hunched over, and was in constant pain. At one point, she even thought that she’d be paralysed.

Then, a friend recommended a personal trainer who dealt with cases like hers.

“I had tried everything (by then). I went for physiotherapy and to a chiropractor. It was the last resort – I’d try anything because it was so painful,” said the practising lawyer.

The trainer, Wenisa Ng, put her through exercises to strengthen her back, and then about half an hour of cardio five days a week, along with a healthier diet to lose weight. It took about four to five months to lose 20kg.

The workouts were challenging, said Yeap. “We’d be arguing about what I can or can’t do – she does push me,” she said, chuckling.

Although she has “mellowed down” with her workouts lately, Yeap has a better quality of life now.

“I’m more energetic, and the pain is greatly reduced now,” she said.

Balancing the body

“Many of these people get into these situations because they’ve (hardly) exercised in their lives. The body is not in a balanced mode, so we need to rebalance them,” said Ng

The 30-year-old Penang-born trainer has been involved in the fitness industry since she was 16 – teaching aerobic classes at a gym – and had worked for the commercial chain gym Fitness First for seven years. She set up her own gym – Active Gym in Bangsar – in March. Together with six other trainers in her gym, Ng deals with clients who have a host of illnesses such as diabetes, Parkinsons, suffered a stroke, osteoperosis and even cancer.

Ng believes that exercise can make a world of difference to a person, even to those suffering from illnesses or injuries that may seem chronic. Her job, she said, was to return her client the abilities that many people take for granted.

One of her clients, who was in his early 40s, suffered from prolasped discs. “He saw a chiropractor and an orthopaedic doctor who basically told him not to carry heavy things,” she said.

This wasn’t something realistic for him as he often travelled for work. “We had to look at reality. He had to carry heavy laguage, walk through airport terminals. He might one day be chased by a dog and may end up having to climb up a tree – you just never know. This is life. You must have a body that is able to function and meet these kinds of challenges,” she said.

Her client was initially sceptical that she could help, but now, after a programme which began at “ground zero”, he can now leg press 200kg, and squat 60kg.

“And he’s doing so without a weight belt! Cheekily, we took photographs of him performing the exercises to show his chiropractor. He now has his life back,” she said, smiling.

Not many are aware that trainers like Ng, who is a certified American Council Exercise trainer, can help people such as these.

For example, qualified personal trainers can help those with hunched backs, slouched shoulders or overached backs, she said.

“We may not correct you 100%, but we can help you lead a better quality of life,” she said.

However, Ng emphasised that personal trainers do not “rehabilitate” people – that word can only be used by physiotherapists.

“What we’re doing are ‘correctional exercises’. Once you’ve finished rehab, you will definitely have muscles that are stronger than others, therefore there could be some muscular imbalances. Therefore, we correct that imbalance,” she said.

She has always preferred to help these people, whom she calls “special population” clients, saying that she feels more fulfilled training them.

“You see them move better and family members will come and tell you how happy they are to see their parents improve. You also get to see individuals now living a fuller life,” she said.

Tailored programmes

Special population clients are treated just the same as healthy ones. “The last thing these people need is to be treated differently. They want to be normal – that’s why they come to the gym and exercise,” she said.

However, their programmes are tailored to take into account their illnesses or disabilities, and it is very important for them to get clearance from their doctors to exercise before they begin a programme.

In fact, Ng often consults with her clients’ doctors to ensure that the programmes are safe for them. She has worked with a few cardiologists who are open to the idea of exercise for their patients.

“There’s no doubt that exercise is beneficial for these people,” she said. “If people know the dos and don’ts, there’s no harm in starting an exercise programme. For example, diabetic clients need to check their blood sugar levels before starting exercise.

“We don’t train them if it’s below 100mg/dl or above 300 mg/dl as they’re not fit to exercise then. We want them between 100mg/dl and 300mg/dl, not outside that range. If they are below 100mg/dl it’s easy – we give them some candy, then 10 minutes later we check them. If it’s okay, now exercise! But if they’re above 300, ‘Sorry, no workout today,’” she said.

Therefore, she keeps something sweet such as candy with her in case the blood sugar of her client drops too low.

“But during the workout, diabetics can do whatever workout they want, whether to lose weight, tone up or build up. In fact, the main goal for people suffering from type 2 diabetes is to lose weight,” she said.

For those with hypertension, breathing is really important, she said. “If you hold your breath, your blood pressure will increase. When you exercise, it will naturally increase as well,” she said.

Those with hypertension cannot perform exercises that require them to lift anything above their heads. The trainer also needs to know what medication they’re taking as some medications will affect their heart rate. Some may affect hydration too, so the trainer has to make sure their clients get water when they are exercising as well.

“There’s a lot more to this than you think. It’s not as simple as picking up a magazine and choosing a workout. It’s different because these people are special,” she said.

Working with a trainer

So, having read this far, you’re now eager to start your exercise programme. However, in order to work effectively with your trainer, consider these:

1. Get medical clearance

Do consult your doctor before beginning a fitness programme to ensure that it is safe for you to exercise.

2. Pick the right personal trainer

Check if he is qualified and certified to deal with special population clients. Also, find out about the trainer.

“The personal trainer may be good and may be able to help you with high blood pressure, or experienced in training you with that condition, but maybe he doesn’t have an attitude that matches yours. So, you must also find out if you can work with him/her. After all, you’re going to be stuck with the trainer for two to three hours a week!” said Ng.

3. Have the right attitude

It is essential to be open-minded and be ready to try new things. “Everything the trainer does with you has a reason,” said Ng.

4. Be prepared for the long haul. Be patient.

Don’t give up when you have setbacks, said Ng. Also, don’t expect results in weeks, said Ng. Mentally prepare yourself to train for months.

“You may see someone swinging dumbells and looking fantastic in the gym. And your’s is tiny in comparison. ‘Why can’t I do that?’ you may wonder. There’s a reason why you can’t do that. Maybe you’re not there yet, so be patient,” she said.

5. Focus on one goal at a time

Do make sure that both you and the personal trainer are clear on what you want to achieve. Once done, focus on one goal at a time.

One of Ng’s clients, who is in his 40s, suffers from rheumatism. He wanted to correct his postural issues, improve his flexibility and lose some weight at the same time. It’s difficult to achieve all three at once as each requires a different programme.

Therefore, Ng concentrated on improving his posture first, then his flexibility, and lastly dealt with his weight. “His posture has improved a lot. Now, he can deadlift 20kgs – and this is for someone who has full-blown rheumatism. The rheumatoid attacks are not as often anymore too,” she said.

Exercise is terribly important, said Ng. The benefits are numerous – for one, exercise helps regulate your blood sugar, strengthens your heart and helps you destress.

“For those with hypertension, diabetes or metabolic syndrome in particular – you must exercise. It is recommended that people with high blood pressure should exercise every day,” she said.

And just because you are slim doesn’t mean that you’ve drawn the “exercise-free card”. “No point looking like a BMW on the outside, but have an engine that is all clogged up,” she said.

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