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Growing up with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spine, I was never physically active. I believed my disability excluded me from keeping fit. My peers would ridicule me in gym class because I could not keep up. Their mocking left me self-conscious.

Not wanting to stand out, I avoided all forms of physical activity into adulthood. Even though doctors and physiotherapists recommended exercise to help me maintain my strength and mobility, I balked at the advice. Exercise was not for me. Why should I even bother? I ate well and kept my weight down. I wasn't interested.

Years later, in my mid-30s, I developed arthritis in one knee. Normally caused by aging, it affects many of us with disabilities earlier because of the strain on our bodies from doing everyday things such as walking.

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Not only was walking painful, but even getting up from a chair or out of the bathtub became difficult without assistance. The pain was constant and excruciating, even while I slept. Nothing could control it. I began to wear a clunky full-length knee brace to help stabilize my knee. And it did. Finally, I was pain-free, as long as I wore the brace.

Then one day while shopping, I lost my balance and fell down a flight of stairs, causing permanent damage to my front tooth and leaving me bruised, bloody and shaken. Fearful of further falls, on the advice of my family and husband I purchased a scooter as a mobility aid.

I liked the scooter because I could now go faster than anyone on foot. For the first time, people were trailing behind me. More importantly, I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased and I didn't have to worry about falling. When I was at the mall, it didn't matter how far away stores were, as long as I had enough battery power to get there.

A couple of months later, just when I thought I had my falls under control, I tripped while carrying laundry at home. My face hit the wall as I fell, giving me a black eye just in time for my brother's wedding later that week.

My sister suggested I look into joining a gym and getting a personal trainer. I was still skeptical, but after giving it some serious thought, I decided to try working out for the first time.

Unlike people without disabilities who can just sign up at their local gym or recreation centre, I had several worries unique to my disability: Could I do the exercises? Would I fall or hurt myself? Would others stare or make fun of me? Could I get help using the equipment and would staff understand my needs?

I began working out with a trainer at a gym near my workplace that provided adaptive fitness training for people with disabilities.

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Thankfully, I didn't feel like an outsider. I fit in quite easily - meaning nobody stared at me. Better yet, I didn't have to worry about getting help with certain exercises, particularly those that required me to sit on a stability ball, as my trainer would hold onto it for me. Other exercises that most people would do standing up were modified so I could do them sitting in a chair.

Those first few weeks were tough though. I'd be so stiff after working out that I could barely walk into my house. My husband, André, would ask with a worried look, "What did your trainer make you do today?"

"I was on the leg press again, did some crunches, arm curls and ball squats," I'd mutter.

Six years later I still work out twice a week, whether I feel like it or not. I changed gyms to one closer to home, and have continued working with a trainer.

My fitness program has evolved, although some exercises haven't changed. I still work on the leg press and do crunches and free weights. I don't need nearly as much assistance getting on and off the stability ball. And I can now do crunches without my legs being held down, which was not the case in the beginning.

I am grateful for my initiation into the fitness world and its many benefits. I have better balance and more endurance when I walk. I don't fall as often. At home I can do more than I could before, such as bring in heavy bags of groceries without assistance. With my toned physique, I've even been told I look like an athlete.

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I continue to use my scooter for distances or on days when I am tired. But now that I am stronger I can help André put my scooter together or take it apart and put it in the trunk of our car.

Although I use a cane in the winter for added stability, my increased strength has made the snowy weather less of an ordeal. Walking on icy sidewalks or trudging through snow isn't the nightmare it once was.

Even better, the power of suggestion has prevailed: André, who has spina bifida too, has started going to the gym with me, which I never thought would happen. Now I have someone to share my workouts with, both the pains and the gains. Together we can support and inspire each other and achieve more from our workouts. I'll admit, knowing I have an audience makes me sometimes show off and push myself just a little harder so he can see what I can do.

Now I'm not the only one flexing while looking in the mirror and asking, "Do you think I look buff in this outfit?"

Mary J. Dufton lives in Orleans, Ont.

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