Among the usual deluge of fitness DVDs, celebrity and otherwise, that emerge at this time of year, there is one that stands out from the rest. Like many, it encourages its viewers to work out in the comfort of their own living room, performing a varied routine of stretching, strengthening and toning moves. What makes it different, though, is that its presenter, Leanne Grose, is an amputee who instructs and performs the fast and furious regime of her Chair Workout from her wheelchair.

Grose, 26, was a supremely fit and sporty teenager who played netball and many other sports. In 2001, however, her life was turned upside down when a tumour was discovered on her left foot. “I had an operation to remove it and three months of radiotherapy, but the intense pain returned and the specialists told me that the tumour had come back,” she says. “In 2002, my left leg was amputated below the knee.”

So much damage had occurred to the leg that by 2004 the tumour had returned again. “In 2006, I had the last of my operations, which meant removing some of my leg above the knee and five weeks more of radiotherapy,” Grose says.

Remarkably, she remained positive about her experiences. “I have always had the attitude that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she says. “And I believe things definitely happen for a reason.”

She admits that life now has its challenges, but prefers not to dwell on them. “When I still had my knee, I could crawl about much more easily, but now I have to go upstairs on my bum,” she says. “Because I have had so many operations, I have no prosthetic limb. In spite of this, I still wear a ridiculously high heel on my other leg.”

As someone who had been so active, she wanted to find advice and enjoyable workouts for people in wheelchairs, but her search came to nothing. These difficulties in finding ways to stay fit and avoid putting on excess weight inspired Grose to make the Chair Workout DVD.

It is a dilemma with which many people will identify. More than 10% of the UK population has a registered disability but until recently, few fitness centres or gyms provided for them. In 2004, a survey conducted by Richard Hunt of the University of East London on behalf of Time Out magazine showed that, of the 450 council-owned or private sports and fitness centres in London, only one provided a full range of integrated facilities and gym equipment for the 1.2 million people with disabilities living in the capital. Even allowing for limitations such as archaic building design, you might expect that newly constructed or refurbished sports centres would have factored in facilities for disabled people.

When section three of the disability discrimination act came into force in October 2004, the aim was to ensure that all public facilities, including gyms, would become fully accessible to the disabled. In theory, failure to comply could result in lawsuits of up to £50,000 being filed against fitness operators. Yet there are loopholes that mean the installation of a few ramps, harnesses and lifts fulfil these legal requirements. While people who use wheelchairs may be able to get into many of these gyms, they can forget about using most of the equipment.

One huge step in the right direction is the Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI), a lottery-funded programme managed by the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS). A £1.3m pilot of the IFI project over two years resulted in 29 sports centres being redeveloped to include accessible equipment and staff who were fully trained to meet the requirements of disabled members. Marketing, communication and disability sport development programmes are all part of the package offered to health clubs that apply to join the scheme.

“Although uptake was slow initially, a lot more gyms are now taking the opportunity to join the programme,” says Tina Dunn of the EFDS. “By April 2009, there will be 400 accredited gyms in England and most of [the existing ones] attract 128 visits from disabled people every month. About nine new people with a disability are joining IFI gyms each month and there are currently in excess of 1,500 fully trained members of staff.”

For those who prefer to exercise in private, though, there is now Grose’s DVD. With a format that includes a warm-up, a fun disco section with John Travolta moves, a combat workout with energetic punching moves, resistance work using Dyna-Bands (giant elastic bands to provide resistance for the upper body), or bottles of water as weights and Pilates exercises for core strength (important for preventing back pain in people who spend most of their time in a seated position), the regimen is no easy option. It finishes with a massage routine using rubber, tennis or golf balls as tools to ease out tension in the thighs, back, arms and feet. Having tried it out on my sofa, I confirm that you can, indeed, exercise to sweating point without standing up.

Such is its popularity that news of Grose, who hails from Cornwall, and her Chair Workout has travelled toAmerica, where Grose has been invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show. She has been inundated with messages of gratitude, and not just from those who use a wheelchair. “There are a lot of people who benefit from the chair workout, including the very overweight or elderly people,” she says. “As far as I am aware, no other DVD like this has been produced anywhere in the world. My goal is to convince people that they can be physically active and that a disability does not mean you need to be unhealthy. I also hope it will make everybody rethink what being in a wheelchair really means.”


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