YMCAfit graduate leads the way with accessible fitness class

Wendy Hall reveals how a life-changing accident led her to create a new trailblazing exercise class and gave her a fresh perspective on fitness

“All I can remember thinking is 'It's really hot in here' so I thought I would just sit down outside the bedroom. I don't remember anything else.” These were the very last things to cross the mind of Wendy Hall moments before an accident which would change her life.

In 2008 Wendy was working for the ambulance service, and during a visit to a patient’s home alongside a paramedic she fainted at the top of a flight of stairs. The resulting fall broke her neck and caused a serious spinal cord injury.

Wendy, from Dudley in the West Midlands, had a ‘vasa vagal episode’ – a small change in body temperature causes light-headedness and fainting. These sorts of episodes are not uncommon among healthy people and Wendy was a regular gym user (five or six days a week, sometimes twice a day) and had taught fitness classes in the past.

The accident left her in hospital for four months and today she has ‘stroke-like symptoms’ on the left side of her body and walks with the aid of a stick – but, she claims, she is lucky. “The doctors operated the same night because they said it was so badly smashed,” she recalls. “I had a bone graft from my hip and had a metal plate inserted in my neck. I'm really lucky that I'm able to move at all now.”

Six years after, Wendy discovered InstructAbility, a joint project between YMCAfit and Aspire Spinal Injury Charity to help more disabled people become fitness instructors. Through the programme she was able to enrol on a Level 2 Gym Instructor course with YMCAfit.

"I was a big gym person before but it's different because now going to the gym isn't about me, it's about other people and that is so much more fulfilling."

“I just felt it [the course] was something that I had to do,” she said. “It was really difficult to work out how to do things because obviously, I wasn't the same physically.” For the next 12 weeks, Wendy combined the three-day-a-week course with her usual three working days.

“I enjoyed the course, although it was a bit intimidating learning differently with a disability. The instructors were really supportive, giving extra time to subjects if needed. We worked together as a group to get each other through it, using our own strengths and weaknesses. It puts you on the right path to working in a gym with confidence.”

As part of the course, Wendy undertook a placement at Portway Lifestyle Centre in Oldbury, near her Dudley home. During her time here she recalls that very quickly her days became full with one-to-one sessions. This continued to the point where she decided she had to devise a new way to make sure she could fit in time for all her clients. That’s when she started an inclusive, accessible, multi-skilled class which – having gone from strength to strength – has become a CIMSPA-recognised training programme called ‘FUNction Fitness’ and also given Wendy a new perspective on exercise.

"Because what I created on my placement was such a success, I didn’t want to let that go. There were so many people coming in and benefitting from the classes so I asked Portway if I could keep coming in on a volunteer basis – and I’ve been doing this ever since.

“I didn't know until I had my accident how difficult it was to find accessible exercise programmes, so it’s been a real eye-opener and has made me realise how many people want to do this type of exercise. I have a double-amputee, I have someone with MS who comes in a wheelchair and I have people with mental health issues – it really doesn't matter.

“It's about building support into long-term exercise and producing what is essentially the first mainstream inclusive class. I was a big gym person before but it's different because now going to the gym isn't about me, it's about other people and that is so much more fulfilling."

Wendy developed her training programme to enable fitness professionals to learn how to deliver inclusive exercise classes that are fun, effective and accessible to all abilities. Any Level 2 Gym Instructors interested in booking onto any FUNction Fitness CPD courses can contact Wendy at wendy.h@functionfitness.uk or via her website www.functionfitness.uk.

Images taken at Portway Lifestyle Centre, Oldbury ©FUNction Fitness