Aspire’s InstructAbility Report on Disabled People Working in Leisure



Living, Working and Exercising With A Mental Health Condition.


Meet Sarah Andrews, a dedicated mum and fitness practitioner who helps to lift the lid on what it is like to look after a child with special needs and hold down a job whilst dealing with anxiety and depression.



Sarah has had Anxiety and Depression for twenty-seven years.  She describes a typical day for her;


“I wake up after a very unsettled night, most of the time I have an active mind that I cannot switch off.  I monitor and regulate my moods and tell myself it’s all going to be ok.  Routine helps.  I must work around my son, who has Autism, and his school schedule - which isn’t always the same.  Being a full-time Carer for him is difficult and every day affects how I am.


“My life is challenging because I have waves of difficulties throughout every day. Panic attacks are the scariest, especially if I'm not at home.  There were long years of feeling unable to leave the home without feeling panicky and anxious, this has got so much better, though some days it is still hard.


“Having a hidden disability is difficult as people still don't understand it, even though I try to explain, because I look like I'm ok but inside I'm facing difficulties most of the time. So if I'm feeling wobbly I have to tell someone or talk to someone, which is the most difficult thing to do at the time.  I'd rather hide, but that’s not always possible.”


Whilst Sarah still lives with the condition, she has found a way to maintain an active lifestyle which gave her the confidence and motivation to pursue a career in the fitness industry.


Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Althouhg, the mental health charity, ‘Mind’, states that the overall number of people with mental health problems has not changed significantly in recent years, it appears that how people cope with mental health problems is getting worse as the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing.




It is well documented that exercise can have a positive impact on mental health, but many people can find it difficult to get started due to low mood, lack of energy and confidence. Sarah credits her martial arts training for helping her depression,


 “Although some days it is hard to get out and go to train, the thought of seeing the people I am with, keeps me going. They have become invaluable friends and are like family and I feel welcome, supported and safe there. I now exercise nearly every day as this helps my mood and I have achieved a second degree black-belt in Taekwondo.


“I initially got into it because my children attended Martial Arts classes a few times a week. (This helped my son with autism so much) and one day I decided to join in myself. The exercise and training three days a week helped my mental health and confidence. It wasn't easy and I had to push myself to train, but being around others I already knew and the instructor made it easier for me.

I started to feel less self-conscious and felt fitter.


“Since working in fitness, I have found that a lot of people experience mental health problems and this is what I advise:

  • Aim to do some sort of exercise, try a class or gym, take a friend along and try to have it in a weekly routine.
  • At first it might be hard to do, as it is new and may be uncomfortable, but keep going!
  • If it doesn't get easier with your feelings, maybe try a different type of exercise, or different time of day.
  • Trust that there is something out there for you!


Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for Mind, said:

“While we all know the benefits of being active for your physical health, it can also help improve your mental health. When you exercise you release ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins which help reduce negative feelings and improve your mood. Exercise also reduces levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, which has been linked to a range of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

“We know that too many people with mental health problems still face real barriers to getting physically active. We think coaches, particularly those with personal experience of mental health problems, can play a huge role in changing this, by making leisure centres, gyms and similar providers more welcoming and understanding.

“Our Get Set to Go sports programme is aiming to train over 30,000 sport and physical activity staff and volunteers to give better support to people with mental health problems, over the next two years.”




Employment is also good for mental health and well-being. Conversely, the longer someone is unemployed, the more vulnerable they are to depression and anxiety. However the National Mental Health Development Unit cites evidence that:


  • Fewer than four in ten employers would consider recruiting someone with a declared mental health condition.
  • People with mental health conditions find it more difficult to find work because employers

believe that they will not do the job well.

  • However, 85% of employers who do employ people with mental health conditions do not

regret doing so.



Sarah also understands the challenge of getting back into work after a long period of unemployment.  She explains,


 “Twelve years ago, I had to give up my council job working in the children's services to care for my son and my two other children. This left me feeling I had no confidence or career, which went on for 10 years!”


Sarah is adamant the decision to give up work was the best thing she did, because her children, especially her youngest, needed her every day. The positive impact of this decision is borne out by the fact her eldest two have now completed their university degrees and her youngest child is in a much better place.


However the longer a person is out of work, the less chance they have of getting back into the labour market. Sarah volunteered in a local charity shop, to build her confidence and then went on to volunteer in the local citizen’s advice bureau. This provided a stepping stone for her to start thinking about a new career.


“I wanted to train as a fitness professional because I have always enjoyed exercise and needed a new career path.  When I found out about the opportunity to become a gym instructor through Aspire’s InstructAbility programme, I thought it would be great to have a qualification in something I’m passionate about. My recent achievements in Taekwondo gave me the courage to go for it.


“During the YMCAfit course, I came to understand that exercise is a key element to positive mental health and feeling good in general.  It helped me to express myself and no longer hide my disability, which is an important part of me. 


“Once qualified, I did a work placement as part of the programme, based at Park Road Pools & Fitness & Leisure Centre. Following the placement Fusion Lifestyle offered me work and I am now a permanent part-time employee.


“I am able to use all the skills and knowledge that I gained on the course to show disabled people that exercise is for everyone – whatever their ability, there are exercises they can do.  Adapting exercises for people and seeing clients meet their achievements has been one of the highlights of the course for me and I plan to specialise in working with disabled people.


“Since completing the InstructAbility programme in 2016 I went on to gain my Personal Training and First Aid qualifications in 2017.  In addition to working in the gym at Park Road, I now also deliver Fusion’s Intencity HIIT (High intensity interval training) classes and I have recently completed FUNction Fitness training with an aim to deliver group exercise classes that are more inclusive.


“The things I love about my job are working with others, helping others to increase their fitness, adapting exercises to make sure they are inclusive and fun, using my skills and feeling like I make a difference.


“I find there is a lack of understanding of disability and impairments both for clients and those working in the fitness industry.  Some of the difficulties arise due to not having support, access or space to work or workout to the best of one’s ability.  If I am working with a client that needs adaptation I will get them to try out equipment to see what works best for them.  This may be using different weights, changing the shape, size or heaviness and using a chair, mat or box.


“When I meet a gym member or someone coming into my fitness class and they have any anxiety I reassure them that I’ll keep an eye on them, look out for them, tell them they can leave anytime and where they can go to a quiet place or space if they need to, to work within their ability and tell me if I need to adapt any exercise or equipment if necessary.


“A lot of people don’t realise I have a hidden disability.  When I’ve told them my journey and condition it opens up conversations and openness.  I am accepted but need to remind others that I do have certain needs as they are hidden.  It can be difficult to hear people’s attitudes towards mental health and the language they use. If someone is struggling with a mental health condition it is upsetting if they hear people describe them as, 'crazy' or, 'not with it'. People often don’t realise that their language can be hurtful and offensive so I always encourage people to use the term mental health problem or emotional difficulty.


Things that I find help me at work are:


  • having an approachable manager
  • a line manager that checks in with me during a shift to make sure I’m ok
  • regular contact with colleagues (avoids isolation)
  • regular breaks
  • a quiet space if needed (it can be overwhelming when the gym is busy)
  • some flexibility in work duties (I can have different energy levels on different days)


It has been truly amazing feeling and seeing my confidence grow over the past two years and finding I’m able to manage my depression and anxiety through exercise.  I also enjoy being around lovely people. I have also found that being around people and having contact with them lessens my own struggles. 


InstructAbility and my subsequent employment and career development has opened up my world and given me a new focus.  I have gained confidence and feel like I am in a new phase of my life.  After not working for over ten years I am now employed, as well as caring for my son.  I am able to manage my depression and anxiety better because I am doing something for me that I enjoy, and help others at the same time.