Braille Monitor                                                     October 2007

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Being Blind and Being Fit Are Compatible Characteristics

by Robert Leslie Newman

Robert Leslie Newman is five feet, eight inches tall and weighs 152 pounds. He is pictured here in exercise clothes, raising hand weights.From the Editor: I used to laugh as heartily as the next person at the oft-quoted comment that every time I feel the impulse to exercise, I lie down until the fit passes. But the more I read about the absolute necessity of daily exercise to good health and reasonable quality of life, the more unfunny I find this attitude. Moreover, I used to be able to take off unwanted pounds by simply consuming fewer calories. But no more! Metabolism slow-down has set in, and, if I want to lose weight, I now have to couple eating less with increased exercise.

It isnít easy for most blind people to run out and join a gym or jump in the car to get to fitness classes. Buying a video in order to take up yoga or find out if Pilates is the answer requires endless explanation and interpretation at the very least. So what is a blind person to do? Some of us have solved the problem and are committed to our exercise programs. Robert Leslie Newman, a rehabilitation counselor, president of the NFB Writers Division, and an active member of the NFB of Nebraska, is one of these. He offers his thoughts about the importance of exercise and a detailed description of his personal program in the following article. This is what he says:

How did my lifelong habit of exercise get started anyway? I think the charitable would say it began because I wanted to improve my self-esteem; the less charitable would say it was vanity and the teenage impulse toward manly competition. To tell the truth, many of my friends and I believed that big muscles--looking like a weight lifter--were the way to look cool. I am fifty-eight years old and totally blind. I do not look like a weight lifter, but I am physically fit, and I like to talk about it. Exercise and a reasonable diet have been an important and ongoing part of my life since I began working out in my teens. I am basically still the same weight and measurements as I was when I graduated from high school.

I have a threefold purpose for writing this article. First, I believe we need to address the serious health issue of too much weight and too little muscle tone in the nation and in our community because we can bring about a positive change. To that end, this is my story, my personal exercise regimen, and a description of its positive influence upon my life. Second, it is my contribution in bringing focus to an already recognized problem in the blindness community: too many blind people are overweight and out of shape. And, third, I believe that looking and feeling good does affect our personal adjustment to blindness and does positively influence othersí reactions to us. So yes, changing what it means to be blind in part does come from the way we look and feel.

Being blind and being fit truly are compatible characteristics, but fitness is even less common in the blind community today than it is in the general population. I believe the underlying cause is societyís misinformation and misunderstanding about blindness. Most societies have a negative view of blindness, one that manifests itself in lowered expectations and therefore makes fewer demands and provides fewer opportunities for the person who is born blind or becomes blind later in life.

In ignorance and protectiveness parents of blind children are likely to limit their active pursuits and keep them indoors, not allowing them to master playground equipment, not enrolling them in organized sports, and not expecting them to do normal household chores. This problem is exacerbated by the general tendency of public schools to have lower expectations of blind students and hence low program accessibility in physical education classes and intramural or extramural sports for blind students. By the time young blind people are making most of their own choices, their lives are already programmed to be sedentary. Not surprisingly they choose to engage in nonphysically active pursuits like watching television, listening to music, working on the computer, and reading. This fear of and lack of practice in moving, together with societyís encouragement of inactive pursuits, can affect newly blind adults as well. This impulse toward sluggishness is compounded for blind people by the undemanding philosophy underlying the services of the average blindness rehabilitation agency.

I have no doubt that my parents, teachers, and friends helped develop my interest in fitness. My mother never let me sit around the house, my father encouraged my interest in sports, and my teachers expected me to participate in activities with my peers, both when I was sighted and after I became blind.

In the summer of 1964, when I was fifteen, I became totally blind as a result of a car accident. My local school did not believe that they could deal with a blind student, so I was enrolled in the state school for the blind in Nebraska. I was a fairly typical teen in that I was not particularly athletic. I attended gym class and followed through with whatever the physical education teacher asked of us. I did participate in wrestling and track. I was lucky that my parents were not the overprotective type; they knew nothing about blindness, but they knew about kids. They expected a normal kid to play actively, which meant not being sedentary. They thought it was reasonable for me to do sports and go out with friends. Moreover, the educators at the residential school for the blind expected blind kids to experience the normal range of curriculum, so they designed classes to accommodate the unique characteristics of the blind learner.

Taking care of oneís health through activity and diet is appropriate for everyone at any age, but if you resemble the inactive blind person Iíve been talking about, how do you get started? Letís start with what you eat.

Significant Influences and Supports

What should you do first to get active? After decades of exercising and observing other people's fitness programs, I know that what works for one person does not necessarily work for the next. Yet in general we are more similar than different, and almost everyone can find a balance between diet and exercise that will work. Exceptions to this rule exist but are very rare. However, before you try seriously pushing yourself, recognize your starting point and begin slowly.

When I look at myself in my mirror (my ten fingers), I know that what I see is not just the result of exercise, but of diet as well. So before we talk about exercise, we have to consider the consumption and burning of calories because the balance between the two is what a person has to achieve. Body shape and fitness are the result of balancing what goes in your mouth and the amount of physical activity necessary to burn off what you have eaten so that you only add to the parts of your body that you need to and do not add weight where it is not wanted.

I have never been on a diet. Yet in another sense I am always on a diet. I call it a reasonable diet, one that keeps me in the input-output balance that I have found over the years works for me. In short, I like to eat; I eat anything I want, but in moderation. Mostly I stay away from classic desserts like cake and pie with all the sugar and flour, carbohydrates that turn into fat for storage in the body. I eat them rarely. My normal after-dinner treat is a piece of fruit or, if I really need a sugar boost, one piece of candy.

I also stay away from eating between meals. I try to eat my largest meal at midday since after supper there are fewer hours in which to burn off calories before bed. The beauty of this system is that, when you choose to pig out at a party or picnic, you can do it, knowing that the next day you will go back to your normal habit of being reasonable with your diet. Finally, remember that being in shape and fit is more than just having a trim figure. Fitness results from the process of getting in shape, and it means having more toned-up musculature and stronger circulatory and respiratory systems.

Now for the exercise part of my fitness program. First is aerobics, the running I do for my heart and circulatory system. Second is weight lifting for maintaining muscle mass and a defined look in my physique and also the exercises I do for fat burning or sculpting.
Here is the Robert Leslie Newman exercise regimen. This is what my personal weekly routine looks like:

Aerobic exercise or running--upon rising and after orange juice and coffee Monday through Friday, I run for twenty minutes, which I figure is at least two miles. I run in my basement on a trampoline that is about three feet in diameter. This is a $25 item that can be found in either sporting goods stores or fitness catalogues. I like this spring-action device, not only because it takes a lot of the joint stress out of running, but because I can conveniently run on it all year round, no matter the weather. It takes the same commitment as running outdoors in that you must run at a pace that elevates your heart rate and sustain the elevation for a reasonable amount of time. While running, I listen to a local radio station. This provides an audible landmark so I donít get disoriented, and it gives me my first fix of world and local news and weather forecasts for the day.

Lifting weights--this is an evening activity, one that allows me to spend time with my wife. I do it in the family room. Bonnie and I watch some of the TV programs we like. She is a second-grade teacher, and, while I exercise, she busies herself with school-related work.
Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings I work on my upper body. I do not use really heavy weights. When I was younger and going for bulk, I used much heavier poundage. Now I go for muscle tone and definition. I begin by warming up by stretching and an exercise that works better for me than push-ups or sit-ups. It is what I call roll-outs. Visualize an eight-inch wheel with a one-foot rod through the center as an axle, with handgrips on either end of the rod. I get down on my knees with the wheel grasped between my two hands. I place the rim of the wheel on the floor in front of me, and, with my weight bridging from my knees to the wheel, I roll out straight and then roll back up to my knees. Then I repeat it one hundred times. This works all the muscles from the knees on up and develops core strength. Only the lower legs touch the floor at any time. I had to work my way up to the full roll-out and this significant number of reps.

For the lifting part of this workout, I start with a barbell, a four-foot steel bar with cast-iron collars, which weighs twenty-five pounds. Then I add two five-pound weights and two one-and-a-quarter-pound weights. The total weight is thirty-seven and a half pounds. When you begin, you want to use enough weight so that the first set feels too light for you. The second set feels more challenging, and the third set is hard. In fact, at first you may not be able to finish the last set. When doing all three sets loses its challenge, you are ready to add more weight. You can decide when you are ready to stabilize the weight. Once you hold steady, you will stop building muscle mass and just increase muscle tone and definition.

I begin with what are called military presses, which build up the shoulder muscles. I kneel on the floor, starting with the bar just below my chin, at shoulder height, each hand gripping the bar in front of its shoulder. I then press the bar straight up as high as I can and then lower it back to shoulder level. I do five sets of thirty repetitions, with a minute of recovery after each set. The first fifteen reps are done with the bar in front of my chin and the second fifteen are done behind my head. I always rest for one minute between sets when working out.

Next I do triceps extensions to build up the muscles on the back side of the upper arms. I lie flat on my back with my hands close together at the center of the bar and extended straight above my head on the floor. I begin by keeping my arms straight; I raise them to the vertical. I then bend my arms at the elbow, bringing the bar down to touch my nose, then I straighten my arms again so that the bar is being pressed toward the ceiling. The bar does not return to the floor above my head until the end of the set. Be careful when lowering the bar; it is easy to strike your nose if you are moving too fast. I do four sets of thirty repetitions.

Next I do curls, which build up the biceps, the muscles on the front side of the upper arm. I stand with my arms straight down in front of me, hands shoulder-width apart, palms up. The bar is horizontal in my hands and touching the tops of my thighs. Bending my elbows, I raise the bar to my chest and then lower again. I do four sets of twenty repetitions.

The next exercise is done with five-pound hand weights. I call it butterflies; it builds the shoulders. With one in each hand, arms straight down at my sides, I raise them simultaneously out to the sides and over my head until the weights touch; then I lower them until they again touch behind me at the small of my back. I do four sets of twenty-five.

Next I do what I call armpit raises (which build shoulders and arms). I use eight-pound weights. Starting with my arms straight down at my sides, I lift both arms in unison, bending my elbows and bringing the weights straight up into my armpits. I then raise my shoulders as high as I can and then lower them and the weights back to the original position. I do four sets of forty reps.

I then do another exercise like curls (building both the biceps and triceps, the front and back sides of the upper arms). With an eight-pounder in each hand and arms straight down at my sides, I simultaneously bend one arm, raising that weight to touch the shoulder, and lift the other arm to the back and up as far as I can reach. I do four sets of sixty reps.

The final exercise I call swings (building the shoulders). I lie on the floor flat on my back, arms straight down at my sides. With an eight-pounder in each hand, keeping my arms straight at all times, I lift both weights from the floor and swing my arms up and over to touch them to the floor above my head. Then I swing them back down to the floor in the starting position. I do four sets of thirty reps.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights I work my lower body: thighs, calves, and ankles. I have worked up to using the barbell on my shoulders with eighty-seven and a half pounds, just over half my total body weight. I do five sets of thirty squats and five sets of thirty toe-raises. Holding the barbell over my shoulders, I squat down as far as I can and then stand up again. For toe-raises I stand holding the barbell in the same position with the balls of my feet on a two-inch pad. I then raise myself as far as I can onto my toes then lower my heels to the floor before raising up to stand on the balls of my feet again. I do thirty squats and thirty toe-raises as a set before putting down the barbell for my minute of recovery.

You will notice that my schedule has me alternating upper-body and lower-body work-outs. This is necessary. In a good workout you tear down muscle fiber, and when it recovers, it is just that much stronger. But the process takes two days, thus the alternation of upper and lower-body exercise.

The final type of exercise is one I make time to do every day. I perform it while seated in a chair. I do it when and wherever I can. It is simply many, many crunches of the buttocks, stomach, and side muscles. This entire in-seat routine can be done anywhere: at home, at work, in the car. Never again will I just sit through a boring meeting, fighting off sleep. I tense up those muscles one group at a time, again and again, until it hurts, working to burn off fat. Practice doing these reps without undue motion and without making faces.

Contract and release the buttocks muscles on one side over and over, until the muscles burn. Hold the contraction as long as possible the final time before moving on to the next set. To exercise the side muscles, imagine lifting one hip to try to touch the shoulder on that side. To exercise the abdominals, contract the muscles necessary to lift your knees to your chest and then release them. The chief value of these five exercises is in the multiple contractions and releases, which build strength and control. The side benefit is that they remind you what it feels like to have these muscles tucked up tight, which is the way they should be whenever you are standing or sitting straight. Good posture requires that all the core muscle groups be strong and do the job they are supposed to.

I assure you that I do not spend all evening watching TV and exercising. The upper-body routine takes a little over an hour, and the lower-body routine takes about a half hour. I have found time to do some version of this routine for decades now, and I always will. If I lose a night because of a social engagement or a meeting, I donít worry about it. I am faithful enough that a lost workout doesnít matter much.

How does being in shape fit into the concept of changing what it means to be blind? In brief it's this: The person who gets in shape and maintains fitness looks better and feels better, which gives one a boost to the morale and the self-confidence. With all the presumptions of incompetence and helplessness that every blind person experiences every day, who among us couldnít benefit from this sense of achievement and a boost in morale? More generally, blindness places us at a social disadvantage, at least in the eyes of many other people. Yet being fit, moving well and looking strong and controlled, is a social advantage, whereas being flabby and paunchy is a definite detractor. I am not talking about chiseled features or prettiness, but rather looking trim and fit for your body type. More and more studies report that people who look good get hired more often than those who have let themselves go. So what are you waiting for? You have nothing to lose but unwanted inches.

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