It’s hardly surprising that Shana Pezaro started comfort eating. After 20 years of unexplained and debilitating symptoms, she had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Having built up her own stage-school business, she was now losing the ability to walk and was forced to sell up. “My husband had found my illness and disability very difficult to deal with, but we always thought I was going to get better,” says Pezaro. “I went from 168 pounds to 210 pounds in the space of three years. The fatigue was so bad that I didn’t have the strength to cook. I was living on microwave meals and snacks. The steroids and other medications made me incredibly hungry. And of course as my legs got worse I was getting less and less exercise — I could barely walk. I was miserable.”
Weight gain is a serious issue for the disabled community. In a study of 30,000 people published this summer by the University of Texas School of Public Health, 42% of adults with a disability were reported as obese, compared with 29% of those without a disability. Gaining weight not only affects a person’s emotional wellbeing, but can also make mobility even harder and symptoms worse. Yet fatigue and pain can make sport participation seem daunting. And although things are improving following the success of the Paralympics, access remains a major barrier. Just 18% of people with a disability or long-term limiting illness participate in sport each week, around half the level of the general population, according to a survey by Sport England.
“You don’t have to eat a lot to put on weight if you’re not moving and your body isn’t burning calories. Disabled people often suffer because they don’t know how to exercise. If the disability is a result of an injury or it’s been a slow onset, they may find it hard to accept that they can’t do a sport in the way they used to, so they feel there’s no point,” says Vanessa Daobri, a gym instructor who specialises in working with people with disabilities. Another issue, she says, is that disabled people can feel frightened to be seen going to the gym in case their benefits are cut. Daobri has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder affecting collagen. “Whatever your disability, there’s a version of a sport for you — you just have to be a bit creative.”
After six months of post-divorce counselling, Pezaro decided she wanted to lose weight. “I got a brilliant new carer who got me eating healthily,” she says. “Then I found out there was an MS treatment centre near me that runs lots of different exercise classes.” At first Pezaro was unable to do most of the exercises, but she persevered and since starting the class three years ago has lost nearly 4st.
“It’s not been easy,” she says. “But I’m so used to living with pain, it’s kind of nice to know that for once, things are hurting for a good reason.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013