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Simone Illger, aged 55 shares her experiences of discovering the benefits of exercise

Our latest personal experiences story at Get Yourself Active comes from Simone Illger, who writes a blog called Flidfit which is about her journey as a Disabled person to losing weight and keeping fitter.

I’ve had my disability from birth, caused by a drug that my Mother took for morning sickness – Thalidomide. It caused unborn babies limbs and internal organs to stop developing. As a result, I have arms shortened to elbow length with only three fingers on each hand. My shoulder, knee and hip joints are all affected.

My disabilities have significantly impacted on my mobility. The fact that I am able to walk at all is surprising, but the mechanics of how I walk requires a huge amount of energy and causes significant pain and discomfort in my hips and lower back. The problems I have weren’t helped by a complicated ankle injury sustained in a head on car crash in 2002.

I have never enjoyed sports or exercise in any form. At school, I was forced to participate in games sessions, but they were endured, not enjoyed. In my twenties, I tried things like step aerobics, but this kind of regimented class exercise just wasn’t my thing.
In 2012 at the age of 49, I set myself a mission of losing some of the additional weight I was carrying. I am only 4ft 9” and weighed 14 stone. The extra weight wasn’t helping my mobility at all.

After having lost over 2 stone in a year, I wanted to introduce exercise to speed up the process.

I started gradually, initially with an hours swimming session once a week at a Disabled swimming session. I soon wanted to do more, so booked a session with a personal trainer to explore exercises I was able to do. I bought myself some small items of exercise equipment and set up a small gym inside my garage at home. I could exercise regularly without leaving home, whatever the weather – and what’s more, it was free. I started to exercise for an hour to two hours about 3-4 times a week and became the most physically fit I had ever been in my life by the age of 51. Although I found it hard to admit, I found the exercise sessions enjoyable.

Over the past 2 years, I have been getting increasing amounts of pain in my lower back and hips. After MRI and other investigations, it appears that the problems stem from the degeneration of my lower spine caused by my abnormally shaped hip joints. I don’t have regular ball and socket joints and the mechanics of my walking mean that muscles, tendons and ligaments are being overworked.

Supported by the consultant I am under at the Royal National Orthopeadic Hospital, I decided to try and combat the pain through non-weight bearing exercise rather than with pain killers. I don’t take any medication on a regular basis and I would really prefer not to.
I have been trying out a special anti-gravity treadmill which is designed so that a percentage of my body weight is supported by an air-filled chamber that my lower body/legs are sealed into. The chamber is inflated or deflated to varying degrees, so I exercise at 80% of my body weight. I am able to move without any of the aches and pains I usually get and more importantly, I can keep walking fairly briskly for 30 minutes.

Without access to the treadmill, I struggle to walk for even 5 minutes before I need to rest and stretch my back and I am also prone to over balancing and falls.

I completely understand why people are unwilling to walk or exercise at all if they are in pain – but walking and movement are crucial to helping with that pain and to maintain joint health. I am building up the muscles that support my whole body structure, developing the under-used muscles to take some of the strain off muscles that are over-used.

I presently walk on the treadmill once a week for 30 minutes and combine that with an hour of prescribed strength training exercise three times a week. These exercises have been devised for me by the sports therapist at the Pain Clinic that I’ve been attending. They target specific problem areas – my neck, hips, shoulders and aim to even up muscle imbalances. Most of the exercises are done sitting on a gym ball or lying on the floor. Getting on and off the floor is a good exercise in itself for me, but it is getting much easier.