When you’re able to exercise whenever you muster the motivation, it can be easy to take exercise for granted as a fundamental part of your health and wellbeing. However, living with a long-term health condition can put something as simple as physical activity out of reach.
That can be because the accessibility of nearby facilities aren’t up to scratch, or the health condition limits what the person can do, or the condition hits their confidence and makes them feel like exercise isn’t “for them”.
Jat Sharma, 36, has been living with asthma for over 25 years and before he took part in the Home Games he thought that being physically active wasn’t something for him. The Home Games, a free 10-week programme of virtual exercise classes designed to be accessible to all, were staged as part of the We Are Undefeatable campaign, which helps people with long-term health conditions be more active.
We spoke to Jat after the Home Games to find out how the classes helped to improve both his physical and mental health, and changed his attitude to exercise.
How does your asthma affect your day-to-day life?
When you’ve lived with asthma for as long as I have, you get used to being on the look-out for anything that can trigger your asthma. You avoid congested roads. Do a weather check. If you’re going to walk through an area like Soho, then you’re aware of people smoking. So you live life in a bit of a strange way, avoiding certain areas. I used to try not to do too much strenuous activity because I found I would trigger my asthma.
Is the pollution in London a particular problem?
I used to live in Coventry and when you move to London you feel the pollution, so I definitely check the apps, and you find there are peak times every day in pretty much all areas of London. You’ve got to live your life somehow, so you go outside anyhow.
I think wearing the mask during the pandemic probably has helped a little bit. It definitely helped control my hayfever over the last two summers.
Have these asthma-related problems stopped you from being active?
I didn’t think being physically active was for someone like me. If you’re someone with asthma you just think that anything strenuous, that is going to require you to get out of breath, is probably the worst thing you can do. I never went to the gym, I never really took part in any physical activities. I used to be more of a diet person who just watched what I ate.
When I took part in the Home Games it came as a massive and pleasant surprise that actually, exercise really can improve your condition, and improve other things like your self-esteem and confidence.
What were the Home Games sessions like?
They were organised by a personal trainer and we were led by two Paralympians: swimmer and cyclist Dame Sarah Storey and rower Lauren Rowles. The sessions considered every disability that people had. It was so well thought out. You didn’t have to leave your home, and any equipment needed would be readily available to everyone. It opened my eyes that you can be active and do home workouts without buying equipment. And you still have the same sort of camaraderie and companionship over virtual sessions, and I thought that was fantastic.
Did it improve your confidence to exercise?
Yeah, 100%. I really didn’t see anyone like myself doing these kinds of things. I was very influenced by social media, so fitness for me equated to looking a certain way. You know, everyone has to have a six-pack, or a 20-inch waist. That’s what I thought was the goal of fitness, I didn’t associate mental health and confidence with fitness.
Did you notice a big improvement in your physical fitness too?
I’ve kept up the exercises and use my inhaler less and less as time has gone on. It has really surprised me that my lungs have become stronger and stronger.
I don’t think there’ll ever be a situation where I won’t be asthmatic, but I can definitely do things for a lot longer than I used to be able to. So running, for example, before was just for five minutes and then I would be like “that’s it, I’m done for the year”. Now I can do a half-hour run.
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If they held the Home Games again, would you recommend it to people?
Oh, yeah. If they said, “let’s do this again next year” I’d be like, “sign me up”. And I would recommend it to anyone. Honestly, just the companionship you get from the group of people that I was doing it with was really heartwarming. I genuinely was one of those kids at school that was always picked last on the team. For me to see other people either struggling or finding their own feet made me feel better. I realised this was what fitness is about. It’s about learning about your own body and learning about yourself as much as you can.
What was one new exercise you tried that really stood out?
One of the exercises that can be quite fun, that is both mentally and physically quite helpful, was balloon keepy-uppies. Essentially it was just you keeping a balloon in the air for a minute. I remember doing similar things when I was a kid and it genuinely lifts your spirits! Initially when I did it I felt quite silly, but then as you keep doing it, those voices in your head fall away, and you realise your hand-eye co-ordination is improving, you’re moving around and a lot of different muscle groups are working, and mentally you just start to feel quite happy.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.