Exercising with a visual impairment

Exercising with a visual impairment

Visual impairment is a broad term that refers to the partial or full loss of sight in one or both eyes. Chronic eye conditions vary in their presentation, treatment and severity. Some people are born with a visual impairment, but it can also occur as a result of disease, injury or degeneration linked to ageing. In many cases, the severity of the impairment will progress over time.

It is estimated that over 13 million Australians have one or more chronic (long-term) eye conditions. Almost all types of visual impairment are more common in older people, affecting 93% of people aged 65 and over, compared with only 12% of those aged under 14.

For this chapter, we’re going to be focusing on exercise for people who suffer from severe visual impairment and are classified as legally blind or have low vision.

A person is considered “legally blind” if they cannot see at six metres what someone with normal vision can see at 60 metres, or if their field of vision is less than 20 degrees in diameter. A person is said to have “low vision” when they have permanent vision loss that cannot be corrected with glasses and affects their daily functioning. As our population grows, it is estimated that by 2030, 564,000 Australians will be blind or have low vision.

THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE

People with visual impairment have a higher prevalence of chronic conditions and lower levels of physical activity. Exercise and physical activity have a wide range of benefits for those who are living with visual impairment. These benefits include:

Proprioception and Coordination

For those who have grown up blind or visually impaired, it can be difficult to know where their bodies should be in space and what optimal movement looks like for different everyday tasks. Exercises such as strength training or yoga can provide the physical literacy needed to help with the movement puzzles of daily life.

Cardiovascular Health and Body Composition

Due to the perceived intimidating nature of the gym and other forms of physical activity, it can be difficult for those with low vision to get moving. This lack of movement can lead to several comorbidities that certainly do not have to go hand in hand with poor vision. Regular physical activity will improve cardiovascular health, energy levels and improve body composition (increase in muscle mass and decrease in body fat).

Confidence and Self-Esteem

Of all the challenges that come with blindness or visual impairment, it is often the inability to keep up with peers at any age that can lead to feeling helpless and isolated. Gaining confidence in one’s ability to move and become stronger then leads to greater feelings of empowerment and a boost in self-esteem. There’s also the opportunity to improve social and emotional health as those with low vision are integrated into group class environments or team sports with increased movement challenges (where capacity allows).

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TYPES OF EXERCISE RECOMMENDED

It’s recommended that those with visual impairment aim to meet the Australian Physical Activity guidelines, which includes being active on most days of the week. If you’re new to exercise, it’s important to start slow and gradually increase your activity levels.

In addition, the following types of movement can be beneficial for those with visual impairment:

Strength training is as beneficial for those with low vision and blindness as it is for any other person and should be incorporated at least twice a week. Initially it can be beneficial to start using machines and slowly integrate the use of more complex free weight exercises once the individual is proficient. As visual cues are of little to no use with this population, it’s important to use task-oriented cues and movements.

Both yoga and Pilates provide great opportunities to develop balance and proprioception with bodyweight or low amounts of external load. If the client has previously engaged in very little physical activity, it will complement a well-rounded strength and conditioning program.

Barefoot training provides a great opportunity to develop balance for any visually impaired trainee, particularly for those who rely on the receptors in their feet for sensing uneven terrain. Often those who grow up with a visual impairment will take their shoes off at every opportunity. This helps to balance, navigate obstacles and strengthen feet and ankles.

It’s also important for visually impaired people to be mindful of their training environment, as certain factors can increase the risk of injury. One of the biggest barriers to training can be the sensory chaos of a busy gym environment. Finding a quiet space where it’s easy to communicate clearly, navigate easily, and focus energy on training without distraction is critical to sustained training success. It’s also important to be aware of uneven surfaces and dimly lit spaces.

SPEAK TO THE EXERCISE PROFESSIONALS

An accredited exercise professional, like an Accredited Exercise Scientist or Accredited Exercise Physiologist, can greatly assist someone living with visual impairment to become more active and independent. They will be able to adapt the training program to include exercise modalities that are safe and effective for someone who is blind or living with low vision.

Click here to find an accredited exercise professional near you.

Expert Contributor: Mitchell Finn, Accredited Exercise Scientist at Foresight Fitness

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