Navigating the Gym with Vision Loss

Woman putting on trainers on bench in gym Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

by Marana Vradenburg, Certified Personal Trainer  

Imagine all the things you hear when you walk into a gym: people talking, music playing, weights clanging, people running, walking, or climbing on various types of equipment. For someone who is blind or visually impaired a gym can be a challenging space to navigate, especially considering that equipment is constantly rearranged or left out of place. I’ve been a member of one gym or another for the past 24 years of my life and I have observed that gym goers often don’t pick up after themselves or put things away properly. There are also major questions that come to mind when I think about the equipment I want to use and the problems I need to solve: 

  • How do I tell if a particular machine is the right one or if it’s being used by another member?  
  • Do I take a chance at feeling around hoping my hand does not end up in some unexpecting person’s lap? Do I call out and ask? What if they’re wearing headphones and not paying attention?  
  • How do I choose the proper weights from a rack among many, or piled on the floor in a jumbled heap?  
  • Do I just hope to stumble across equipment I can use and try to get in a reasonable workout?  

Barriers to Going to the Gym 

There are many benefits to being a member of a gym, provided that you actually take advantage of the investment. I know many people, sighted or blind, who spend a lot of money on a fancy gym membership and only see the inside of the gym on the day they sign up. Intentions are good but circumstances, fear, or just not setting aside time to go, are all common barriers to creating a regular gym routine for many. 

Gyms can be challenging and intimidating to navigate when you can’t see so well. Unless you have the finances to be able to invest in equipment for home or are highly motivated to be consistent with bodyweight exercise, you need to be creative and maximize what is available. If you are intimidated by the idea of trying to navigate the gym but would like to give it a try, let me offer some ideas that may help. 

Recommendations for Finding a Gym and Finding Assistance 

1. Call your local hospital or medical facility to see if they own a fitness center. These places are usually very well-staffed and will have someone to help on the gym floor, but they are not personal trainers. Generally, they are the staff who are stocking towels, picking up weights and organizing them, and ensuring equipment is functioning as it should. At my gym, this person helps me find my way around efficiently and safely.  Although they don’t work out with me, they will guide me to the location I prefer, help me find the right weights, or make sure the machines are adjusted properly for my height. Often cardio equipment such as treadmills, bikes and ellipticals are not accessible, so they also help get me started on those as well. 

2. Call around to several gyms. Let them know your situation and find out if they have the staff available to help you navigate. Explain to them that you don’t need a Personal Trainer; rather someone to help you find your way around and get situated. I’ve struggled to find a chain gym well enough staffed to offer this service, but if you go at a time when it’s not so busy chances are you’ll find a member of the staff with a little downtime to assist.

3. Find a training partner such as a family member or friend who is willing to go along with you. The trick here is finding someone who will be consistent. You may even ask if you can post a flyer stating that you are visually impaired and looking for a training partner. The gym is a social event for many people and having someone to chat with while we train can be encouraging. Also, having an accountability partner helps with staying consistent. Just be sure to clarify that you’re not looking for a free ride, but someone to meet up at the gym at a specified time to work out. 

4. Attend classes. From Yoga to Body Pump, most gyms offer quite a range of classes at various times throughout the day and they all have an instructor who is there to help. Find a class you are interested in and speak to the instructor ahead of time. Let them know you’d like to take their class explain any limitations and what help you may need. They won’t be able to work with you one-on-one throughout the duration of the class, but they do keep an eye out on everyone to make sure they are performing properly and will walk around to assist where necessary. If they have a heads-up about your situation, they can pay you a little more attention. 

5. Hire a Personal Trainer. This can get expensive but is a great option for someone who is new to a fitness journey and can afford some one-on-one time. Form is crucial and it is important to ensure you are following a program that will help reach your goals. Male or female, old or young, trainers come in all types. If you feel comfortable working with a specific gender, then simply let the membership office know when you are enrolling and they will do their best to match you up accordingly. 

The gym may not be the preferred option for everyone, but it works well for people like me. I have fitness equipment at home, but I find I am much more motivated to push myself harder when I am going to the gym with a purpose. Staying active in whatever way you are most comfortable is the key. Vision loss can mean extra hurdles to jump, but the reward is worth it. A feeling of accomplishment and knowing you’re making an investment in your health are helpful for a healthy mind and body.