Exercise for Everyone

woman walking on sidewalk with guide dog

Editor’s Note: May is Older American’s Month. This year’s theme is communities of strength, celebrating “the strength of older adults with special emphasis on the power of connection and engagement in building strong communities.”  Also celebrated this month is Senior Health and Fitness Day on May 26. The goal is to promote the importance of regular physical activity and to showcase what organizations are doing to improve the health of older adults in their communities. 

No matter your age or abilities, there’s a form of exercise you can do. Getting regular exercise is good for your health, so celebrate both Senior Fitness Day and Older Americans Month by discovering ways you can stay active and engaged. If you’re assisting a parent or older friend who is adjusting to vision loss, you can help them find the right fitness option. 

First Step

The first step is to check with your doctor to make sure what kind of exercise is safest. It might be that simple stretches are best or that you can join an appropriate class. Whatever you do, don’t let your doctor tell you that someone who is visually impaired can’t exercise at all, says Neva Fairchild, National Aging & Vision Loss Specialist at American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).  

“Some doctors make assumptions about vision loss that just aren’t accurate because they don’t have enough facts,” she says. “Safety comes first,” Neva adds, “but there are many ways to work exercise into your life” 

Just Do It 

One easy way to get regular exercise is to walk around your house or yard using one hand against the wall or a fence to guide you. Neva, who is blind, says she can find her way around her house without “trailing” her hand but she can go faster if she uses her hand as a guide to trail. 

The trick to wall or fence trailing is to make sure there’s a clear path – no furniture or other objects, like plants, that would get in your way. When you’re indoors, cup your hand like you’re holding a can of soup so your fingers don’t get caught on anything. Outdoors, wear gardening gloves to avoid scratches from bricks or fencing. If there’s something you just can’t bear to move – like a favorite bush – put a mark on the fence so you know to go around it.  

Because walking is a free, easy way to get exercise, when the weather is nice find a friend to walk with. Having someone guide you can help you build strength and stamina so you can walk on your own with a long cane or a guide dog, like Neva does. If you’re walking where there’s traffic, listen carefully for cars. “Wait until you don’t hear any before crossing the street – and never look in a vehicle’s direction,” Neva says, “or they may think you see them and drive on.” However you choose to walk, always have a phone in your pocket, a fanny pack, or even a bag hanging from your neck, just in case.  

Even when the weather isn’t great, there are exercise programs you can do at home. BlindAlive offers a series of YouTube videos called Eye-Free Fitness that are audio-described especially for people who are visually impaired.  Or read Liz Bottner’s post about her home walking program. 

Make Fitness Fun 

Almost every community has a fitness center, community center, or even a senior center that offers fitness classes. Some of them may even be tailored to older adults, like A Matter of Balance (MOB). Offered at locations across the country, MOB is designed to help older adults maintain their balance to prevent falls. In some areas it may have been adapted for people who are visually impaired. You can search the National Council on Aging data base or call APH ConnectCenter (1-800-232-5463) to find MOB and other classes ideal for older adults with vision loss in your area. Also, the OIB-TAC offers a free course on fall prevention

“So often people with vision loss give up on social activities, but it’s so important to be with other people,” Neva says. “Classes have COVID precautions in place so the groups may be smaller right now, but it’s still interaction.” 

If you call the APH ConnectCenter, you might also ask about walking clubs or other group fitness activities for older adults with vision loss in your area. In addition, ask if there are Reading Radio Service chair exercise programs in your area. They’re ideal for people just getting back into fitness or who use a wheelchair. These classes use descriptive audio for people who are visually impaired. Reading Radio Service usually uses specially tuned radios, but is available on devices like the Amazon Echo or a computer, if you have a Wi-Fi connection and would rather exercise at home. 

Another strategy is to ask your local fitness center for assistance. For example, Neva rides a recumbent stationary bike because it’s easier on her knees. A fitness center staff member can describe and show you how to use equipment that interests you, and even help you put adhesive braille dots on the buttons you need. (You may need to ask the center to add a sign instructing people not to remove the dots, to assist people who are visually impaired.)  

Exercise Your Options 

“APH offers a number of products that are designed for young people but can be just as useful for older adults,” says Tristan Pierce, Multiple Disabilities and Physical Education Product Manager. 

Tristan goes on to say, “There’s the Jump Rope to Fitness Kit, which includes a variety of jump ropes for different needs as well as an orientation mat so you don’t wander too far off your mark. This can happen when someone is jumping rope. and there’s even a rope-less jump rope that’s great for balance.”  

Another option is the Walk/Run for Fitness Kit, a personal guidewire system similar to the trailing technique Neva described. It’s great for building confidence and can be used with a companion as well as by people who use wheelchairs.  There’s also the 30-Love Tennis Kit, which is based on the “blind tennis” game invented in Japan. It uses shorter racquets and can be played alone, hitting the ball against a wall in your basement or garage, or with a partner.  

“The way the people who developed it in Japan explained it to me, the shorter racquet makes it easier to hear the ball coming and connect with it,” Tristan says.  

It’s simpler than ever to get to an in-person class thanks to services like Lyft and Uber. So be sure to check with local community centers or APH ConnectCenter for classes you can attend in person. But if transportation is an issue, these programs offer companionship and fitness at home:  

Well Connected provides free phone and online services every day of the week for people who are visually impaired, including fitness sessions. 

Lifetime Connections Without Walls is a phone-based service that offers a wide range of programs, including exercises classes – and once you sign up, they’ll even call you when it’s time for your session. 

Hadley is a great resource for people with vision loss, too, especially if you need some training on computer use. To learn more, you can also call them at 800-323-4238. 

American Council of the Blind (ACB) offers a wide range of programming via Zoom or phone, including fitness classes such as chair yoga and group cardiovascular classes. To sign up for notices about upcoming events send an email to [email protected].