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A Chemical Workout


A Chemical Workout

Forget Barbados. In this fitness era, the gym is the trendiest destination spot. Stressed corporate types hide behind headsets and pound their troubles away on the treadmill.

Forget Barbados. In this fitness era, the gym is the trendiest destination spot. Stressed corporate types hide behind headsets and pound their troubles away on the treadmill. Youths shoot hoops while parents unwind in the hot tub. But many Canadians who would benefit from exercise can’t go to the gym. Why? The floors, the equipment, the pool, the cleaners–the chemicals!

People with chemical sensitivities (a condition also associated with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or environmental illness) can be highly reactive to the types of products found at work-out facilities. It’s more than a case of personal fragrance. If it were that simple, then those living in Halifax (where regulations prohibit the public use of perfumed products) could visit the gym without fear of a health setback.

A fitness centre attuned to the unique needs of this growing group would have to examine every aspect of the facility from the ground up. To most, a bit of fresh rubber or floor shine is nothing, but to a patient recovering from chemical allergies, it’s a whole other ball of wax.

Political Muscle-flexing

"To my knowledge, no really safe exercise location exists," says Judy Spence of the Environmental Illness Society of Canada.

At one point, her group collected equipment in the hopes of developing a specialized centre for public use. They submitted a proposal to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. If accepted, it would have facilitated the establishment of a "safe" chemically-conscious recreation complex in the Ottawa area. Instead, the approval went to the asthma clinic at a local hospital and now it’s too late for that location.

"It will never be useable for the environmentally ill once perfumed patients and cigarette smokers begin using it," adds Spence. "What a pity."

Typical fitness junkies can mop away the sweat on their brows and relish in the whirring of a nearby fan. But that same fabric-softened towel could trigger a reaction in a chemically-sensitive person! And a fan doesn’t provide enough ventilation for the environmentally ill. Some facilities are more aware than others, but not everyone is sympathetic. As if battling illness weren’t enough, these patients must also see their needs belittled in the public and political arenas.

"To mandate that public places be designed or redesigned to accommodate variable and unpredictable individual responses is unfair," Dr Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch Inc wrote recently. As a board chairman for Quackwatch Inc, his opinion is representative of mainstream medicine.

Getting Fit For Change

Recognizing a legitimate gap in the exercise industry, a few scattered health professionals offer private exercise facilities to patients on detoxification programs, but the equipment isn’t available to all. The remainder must rely on alternative ways of keeping their muscles moving–especially since fitness plays an important role in recovery.

Even conventional doctors recognize that no activity is bad news for patients with extreme fatigue or musculoskeletal pain–symptoms linked to chemical overload in the body. Appropriate exercise can prevent muscular and cardiovascular deconditioning.

"You have to give control to the patient," explains Dr Cecil Hershler, a Vancouver physician specializing in pain and physical rehabilitation. "The role I play is helping people get confident in setting up their own exercise program."

Mobility and stretching are usually emphasized at first, followed by the gradual addition of low-impact aerobic exercise. Gentle weight training and aquatic work-outs are commonly recommended, but slipping into a chlorinated pool or pedaling an oil-lubed stationary bike may not be a good idea.

Listening to the body is key–and the person with chemical sensitivities must take even greater precautions. For lack of safe exercise destinations, much physical exertion takes place in the home, cutting off important social connections and adding to a sense of isolation.

Exercise aids, books and videos that specifically target homebound patients offer one method of support. Others can turn to the more costly advice of a personal trainer. If a work-out coach hasn’t already had clients with chemical-related conditions, educating even one more person about these problems could help make a difference.

The general awareness of toxic contamination and its impact on health is growing. For some entrepreneur, the obvious extension of this health movement is to build safer recreation and fitness centres for public use. Let’s hope it happens soon.

The Environmental Illness Society of Canada can be reached at (613) 728-9493 or . The ME Society of BC is available online at or by phone (604) 878-7707.



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