Blind World Magazine

Strength training helps the visually impaired to stay on their feet.

Miami Herald, Florida.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006.

The gym at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is not the kind of place you'd find Lost hunk Josh Holloway on the elliptical flinging sweat.

But, for those using it, it may be the most valuable room in the world.

This is where people like Claire Anderson, blind since a stroke damaged her optic nerve last August, work out under the guidance of volunteer personal trainers Joe Castillo and Brian Singer.

''A blind person should learn the correct way to strengthen the body so that they can be more capable of self mobility,'' said Henry Trattler of Baptist Center for Excellence in Eye Care and the team ophthalmologist for the Miami Heat. ``This is critical for them.''

Trattler offers an example. ``You see someone walking with a cane. They use their feet to feel the differences in levels of walking. But they have to be strong enough to bump into something and not immediately fall down.''

Teaching the visually impaired the basics of strength training should be ''a global concept,'' he says.

Global has come to the Lighthouse, now celebrating its 75th year helping the blind.

''We're trying to give them the tools to feel independent; balance is a big issue with the blind,'' Castillo says.

Just ask Virginia Jacko, the not-for-profit organization's blind CEO. She was doing fine one day not long ago until five steps sprouted in her path. Jacko, her vision stolen in 1995 by the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, was a prime candidate to take the plunge.

''I remember clearly going to my sister's apartment; it was a new place to me, I didn't have my guard dog and I didn't know there were five steps,'' she said.

As she stepped forward she lost her footing but managed to use her body's core strength -- stomach muscles, agile legs -- to execute some fancy footwork to remain erect.

'My sister said, `You danced down those steps!' I had enough balance that I didn't fall over.''

Jacko credits working out with saving her from what could have been a nasty spill.

Jacko also credits the workouts with her positive attitude.

After losing her sight and leaving her job as director of affairs for Purdue University in Indiana, Jacko went to the Miami Lighthouse as a client in 2001, at her daughter's urging. At the time it was like many facilities around the nation caring for the blind, ''a typical place'' that ``will teach a blind person how to put toothpaste on a toothbrush, how to prepare food safely, walk down the street, ride the metro as a blind person -- none incorporate fitness.''

Five years ago, a volunteer took a handful of clients to a spinning class at Miami Jewish Community Center in Kendall. Jacko's reaction: ``Wow! A blind person can have fitness classes!''

She became hooked.

``For blind people, balance and strength and awareness of body will improve the quality of life. Guide dogs work on the left side, your shoulder drops-- that's 90 pounds always pulling on my left side. By going to the gym you are focusing on posture, balance.''

Trainers at the Lighthouse work with simple equipment such as resistance bands, fitness balls and hand, ankle and leg weights. One reason for keeping it simple is the need for students to practice what they learn at home. Few can afford pricey fitness equipment. Resistance bands, at $15 or so, are within the means of most and offer a viable workout.

Training the blind requires constant physical and verbal cues, Castillo said. Touch and placing the body in proper position are part of the training. With the blind, heads tend to droop. Posture is stressed.

''When you get on the bus, when you lift your leg to take that step, if you don't contract your abdominal muscles it will hyper-extend the back,'' Castillo says, citing a common example. ``We are giving these people cues and feedback so they can understand what they are doing and how injuries can be prevented. That's been most challenging.''

The program is proactive, too.

''One of the major causes of blindness we see in our society is diabetes, and one of the things in adult diabetics is that there are not many skinny ones,'' Trattler says. ``The healthier a person can be with weight control, the easier it is for a diabetic to take care of themself.''

Beyond the obvious pluses, the program can reduce stress.

Anderson, a Coconut Grove club administrator and event planner, lost most of her vision as the result of a stroke damaging her optic nerve in August 2005. ``I went from 20-20 to 20-800 in an instant. I was driving. My mind shut down. What's going on? For two weeks I sat around crying. Then I went to the Lighthouse. They don't have space for crying.''

Anderson, who lives alone with a blind Siamese cat -- ''we're both blind but she's not as well adjusted as I am'' -- relearned the essentials of daily living. With the help of modern advancements, like scanners, computers and even talking bathroom scales, ``Now I can do everything you can do except drive.

''I'm very smart, but Braille . . .,'' she says, bristling, clearly not her favorite activity at the center.

Exercise, however, is a joy. ``Exercise releases endorphins. You feel so much better after exercise. People who are blind have more stress than the average person just getting around from here to there. Eating food off a plate and getting it into your mouth is a challenge regular folks don't have.

``I take Braille [classes] and that makes me cry. Exercise makes me laugh.''

End of article.

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