Anyone can rattle off a list of reasons why he or she couldn’t make it to the gym. It was too crowded, there were more important things to do that day, traffic was out of control, etc. But for many people with disability, these reasons may be a little more complicated. Blinking fluorescent lights, blaring high-energy music, and noisy workout machines may keep someone prone to sensory overload from working out. A huge room full of strangers and mirrors is probably the last place someone with social anxiety or body dysmorphia wants to be. If you have depression, getting out of bed in the morning may already feel like you’re bench pressing twice your weight.
When I was recovering from my eating disorder, I felt like the scrawniest person in the workout room. I could barely lift 10 pounds and was forced to look at my reflection wherever I went. I was surrounded by talk of weight gain supplements, calories, and carbo loading; I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone there was watching me fail. I felt alienated and out of place in the gym, and I’m sure many others with disability have felt the same way.
Nowadays, I’ve found working out can boost my self-esteem and stave off depressive episodes, and there’s a great volume of research to support these facts. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my great reluctance to leave my room and actually go to the gym. So, over the years as a yoga instructor and mentally ill human being, I’ve curated a set of workouts I can do with minimal equipment in my own room.
Editor’s note: Please consult a physician before starting or stopping an exercise regimen.
What You’ll Need:
A yoga mat. You may not need one if you have carpeting, but if you have hard floors, the extra cushioning from a yoga mat is really helpful. Plus, you’re less likely to slip because of the increased traction you can get on a mat. Here are some reliable and inexpensive ones you can get delivered right to your door.
Weights. Completely optional but great for upping the intensity of a variety of different workouts. Owning a few pairs of weights can always come in handy if you exercise at home a lot.
Clothing you can move around it. If you’re doing stretches, you’re going to want clothing that can stretch as much as you can. For yoga poses, especially inversions, tight-fitting clothes like tank tops or shorts are best so your clothes don’t fly into your face every time you downward dog.
Sun Salutation. A classic yoga flow. It’s a popular morning routine to warm up all the important muscles in your body like your hamstrings, shoulders, and your core. If you feel like you want more, you can up the intensity with some toning moves. Start in downward dog and bring your right leg into the air behind you. Then curl your leg in so your knee can just brush against nose. Lift your leg up behind you again and curl it in so your knee touches your right elbow. After you’ve brought your leg behind you again, curl it in one last time and twist your torso so your knee meets your other elbow. Doing this on both sides can strengthen your core and improve balance. See how long you can hold each leg touch!
(Improvised) Weight Lifting. If you’re not ready to splurge on a set of free weights, here are some DIY weights that work for arm exercises like triceps extensions and reverse flies: If you have some empty plastic water bottles or milk jugs, try filling them with water or sand. You can also do bicep curls or deadlifts with your groceries (if you’re careful not to drop them all over the floor). If full grocery bags are too inconvenient for you, you can use cans or beer bottles as weights as well. Textbooks and dictionaries make great weights too. Even just holding a large book above your head for a minute is an arm workout! I’ve also seen people fill long socks with dry beans and tie them around their arms and legs to make wrist and ankle weights. You may not want to eat the beans after they’ve been in an old sock, though.
Wall Sits. I love wall sits. You can do them pretty much anywhere and they work out your core, glutes, and thighs. I try to hold them as long as I can, but 30 seconds to a minute is a good place to start if you’ve never done them before. Just stand about a foot from the wall and sit down into a position where your back touches the wall and your thigh and calf make a 90-degree angle with your knee. To keep your back protected, try to press your spine to the wall as you sit. The best part about this pose is you can check your phone or read the newspaper while you’re in it. If you get really good at this one and want a challenge, try lifting one leg up at a time so it becomes parallel with the ground. Holding this is killer, so only try this if you’ve gotten a regular wall sit down.
Lunges. They’re a tried-and-true workout classic. The key to good lunges is good technique, taking special care of your knees. By stepping further forward, you can keep your bent leg at a 90-degree angle, which will keep your knee from getting injured by bending too much. Make sure to step forward and not to the side, keeping your legs shoulder-width apart if you can. For harder lunges, you can step backwards or do bicep curls with weights as you lunge, bringing them in towards your chest as you step.
Squats. Squats are a great way to ensure you’re extremely sore the morning after you work out (remember to stretch!). There’s a million ways you can do squats incorrectly, however, so make sure you’re being careful with your knees and your back. You want your butt to come below your knees but not all the way down, since that makes the move a lot easier than it should be. Your back should be as straight as possible when you’re squatting, with your knees right above your toes when bent. For added difficulty, try holding a weight against your chest as you squat. You can use a book or a bag of flour as a DIY alternative.
Arm Circles. When I’m doing arm circles, I like to imagine my index finger is drawing circles of different circumferences in the air. I start with a circle the size of a pencil’s eraser, then move up to a coffee cup, then a dinner plate, then a beach ball, then an umbrella (or just as big as you can go). Then I reverse the direction of my circle and go from umbrella to eraser. This is one you can do while reading or watching a video, and it’s a great way to warm up your arms at the beginning of the day (though it is a significant amount of work depending on how many circles you do!). After arm circles, I like to bring my arm across the front of my chest and pull it in with the other to stretch out the muscles in my shoulders. You can also grasp your hands behind your back and stretch your chest, too.
Plank. Plank is already a part of Sun Salutation, but it’s something that has a lot of potential for toning (and soreness). There’s a lot of variations you can do with plank, but it’s better to be able to do a classic plank with great technique than a difficult variation you’re not sure about. My tips for holding a plank are arm placement and a slight bend in the elbows. If your arms are too close together, you’re going to want to quit faster, so make sure they’re under your shoulders or an inch out. I also find engaging my core rather than just using my arms helps a lot, and if you’re feeling like you’re about to collapse, tucking your tailbone in so your hips point down a little more can keep you up for a few more seconds at least. It’s good to do plank with some frame of reference for how flat your back is, either a mirror or a friend, since an arched back or a curved spine can lead to problems in the future. Most importantly, if you feel like you need to drop down to your knees and build up to a traditional plank, do it. I started my plank on my knees and now I’m up to a side plank with a lifted leg, so just work on going slowly and carefully in the beginning. If you’re looking for a more active plank, try dropping down you’re your elbows one at a time (slowly!) and then bring yourself back up to a regular plank. I can usually only do about five of these since they’re so intense.
Sometimes it’s hard to just to motivate yourself to work out at all, which is a hurdle all on its own. But there’s no need to feel ashamed for skipping a few days as long as you get back up and try again another time. For many people, even 30 minutes of exercise can improve their physical, and mental, health. Starting to exercise after losing so much of my health to my mental illnesses was a terrible and terrific feat. Terrible, because of all the anxiety that working out can cause, but also terrific, as I begin to view my body as a partner, not a foe.
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Thinkstock photo by monkey business images
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.