Aspire’s InstructAbility report on disabled people working in leisure.


Rebuilding Lives


Christian Lewis from Blaina, South Wales used the gym to rebuild his own life and then rebuild a career.


At the age of 18 Christian, joined the Army and served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers for six years. During a tour in Northern Ireland, he sustained injury to his shoulder, elbow and hand and suffered hearing loss to his left ear. As a consequence of his permanent injuries he was medically discharged from the Army.


Life seemed to enter a downward spiral for Christian,


“After coming out of the Army I could not fit in with anybody or anything. I started to drink a lot to block out my PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  I went through a divorce, lost my house and kids and even became homeless for a while.”


The serious injury to Christian’s hand resulted in a complete loss of function and he faced the prospect of surgical amputation. He says,


“I was advised to have it amputated as it got in the way.  It didn’t look like a hand.  I eventually had an appointment with a plastic surgeon. An operation followed, to reconstruct my hand, which involved breaking the bones, realigning and plating them. I have since regained some function in a couple of fingers and my thumb.”


The psychological trauma took longer to diagnose but a few years later he was diagnosed with a range of disorders including chronic Post-Traumatic Stress and an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The latter is an anxiety disorder that involves ongoing, obtrusive worrying thoughts along with the urge to repeat activities to reduce the anxiety.  On top of dealing with these conditions, Christian also struggled with the distress and psychological discomfort associated with Post Alcohol Dependency.


Christian spent six weeks in an Army hospital to help him recover and it was here that he discovered, via other patients, the Help for Heroes Band of Brothers Network. The network supports military personnel who have suffered a permanently life-limiting or career-ending injury or illness during or attributable to their service.


His life started to turn around once he began to ask for help. At one point as Christian’s life unravelled he was rendered homeless, but through perseverance and support he got a house sorted, his children back and even managed to get his own Driving Instructor Business back up and running.  Things got even better when he met his best friend and now wife, Zoë.


Once Christian regained his health he started to think about what else he wanted to achieve. It was by no means easy though. He still has some days when he can’t get up, let alone talk to people, and he experiences continues pain in his hands which he has to suppress using painkillers. Going to the gym was a factor in Christian’s physical and mental recovery, he liked going, enjoyed the feel good factor, and as a result was also able to reduce some of his medication.


Whilst he was pleased to get his business running again it was causing him a lot of stress, so when he received information from Help for Heroes about an opportunity to become a fitness instructor he immediately liked the idea.


He joined the training programme which was a joint venture between Aspire’s InstructAbility programme, YMCAfit and Help for Heroes, to support injured veterans to gain new skills and employment in the fitness industry.


He gained his Personal Trainer qualification in 2018 and undertook a work placement at Ebbw Vale Sports Centre.  He was offered work at the centre and now also works across the Aneurin Leisure Trust’s other facilities at Abertillery and Tredegar.


He has also been busy continuing his professional development and is now a qualified lifeguard and leads 15 classes a week including, Aqua , Spinning , Boot camp, Boxercise, Kids Boxercise, Kickercise and Les Mills GRIT for the three Sports Centres in the area.


Staff members across the leisure trust recognise the hard work and talent that Christian brings to the leisure industry.


Tom Kivell, Fitness Manager at Anuerin Leisure recalls the journey that Christian has been on since their first meeting in March 2017,


“Chris was aspiring to become a fitness instructor and work as part of the Aneurin Leisure team. He was undertaking his level 2 in Gym Instructing through Aspire, he wanted to do his volunteer hours at Tredegar Sports Centre to learn how the sports centres’ run. He enjoyed it so much he completed his Level 3 in Personal Training, and is now actively working as a Personal Trainer at Aneurin Leisure facilities. He has undertaken many qualifications to better himself and the service. Chris is a very motivated, passionate and genuine person who aspires to help other with the knowledge he has gained. He is an asset and aspires to develop further into the health and fitness industry. “


Jamie Davies, Duty Supervisor, at Abertillery Sports Centre adds,


“Chris is a welcomed addition to the Aneurin Leisure Team, he is very popular amongst staff and customers. We get amazing feedback with regards his array of classes he covers and the effort he puts in around the sports centre.  He’s been a real valued addition to the team.”


Christian is clearly passionate about his work and enjoys the variety. He is particularly keen to support veterans and disabled people with their fitness goals.  His description of how he supports his disabled clients demonstrates how skilful he is in understanding and adapting exercise.


“I take a class call ‘Les Mills GRIT’. It is one of my favourite classes, it’s a high intensity 30 minute workout where you burn calories for hours after. I give alternative exercises where necessary depending on fitness level and ability.  For example, for a client with a bad back they are instructed to do Lunges and Squats instead of Mountain Climbers and Burpees.  I also use a microphone when we have participants that have a hearing problem.


 “I have also enjoy supporting a blind client called Alison, she has been blind thirteen years and is in her 50‘s.  She came into the gym enquiring about Personal Training sessions and they gave her my business card and told her that I am qualified to train people with disabilities. Her old guide dog was going to be replaced with a young 18month old puppy and she wanted to get fitter in order to keep up with it.  She has enjoyed training with me so much that she has continued even after getting her new dog.  Alison leaves her dog in Reception with a blanket, water bowl and toy.  I then guide her to the gym.  I explain everything in great detail, some of the machines are geared up for blind people with raised buttons.  For other exercises such as squats I give a very precise explanation and ask her permission to guide her with my hands.”


Alison says,


“Since training with Chris he’s made me feel very welcome, he’s very approachable and friendly.  I only wanted to do some training as I was getting a new, younger guide dog and wanted to build my fitness up, but decided to keep training with Chris as it’s fun and I really enjoy it.”


When asked about what he thinks of his new career he says,


“I wish I’d done this 10 years ago!  Employment opportunities in my local area were scarce and there were a lot of things I couldn’t do with PTSD and limited hand function.  I feel fully accepted as a fitness professional and the leisure centres are very supportive and understanding, especially if I need some time off.


“I love meeting new people, helping people, taking classes and training people with disabilities. 


“I plan to keep taking the fitness classes and working as a self-employed Personal Trainer. I am currently studying on a course to be able to offer GP Referral and am due to complete a Level 3 Sports Massage Course.  I am also trying to set up a Veterans Day.”


As Christian leaves to go off to his next class, we reflect on this uplifting story. The struggles to overcome the challenges that life threw at one man and his grit and determination to rebuild his life and the new talents he discovered along the way. We also acknowledge that, as with many people living with physical and mental health difficulties, this isn’t a neat ending but a continuous journey to survive and thrive.


One thing we are certain of, is that Christian Lewis has enough grit to make the ‘Les Mills GRIT’ sound like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park!