Plus, the most important exercises for people with visual impairments to add to their workout routine.
In 2014, Evan Schwerbrock was living a pretty normal life for a 22-year-old. He'd recently graduated from college with a degree in Health Sciences, and he was working in the fitness industry, sharing his passion for strength training, staying active, and biomechanics. But during a recreational volleyball game, he realized that something was off with his vision.
"All of a sudden, the lights were messing with me," he recalls. After losing sight of the ball, he got hit in the face. "Later, I threw the ball up to serve and completely lost sight of it," he says. "I had to make my best guess as to when it was coming back down, and I barely hit it."
Assuming it was a contact lens issue, Schwerbrock made an appointment with an eye doctor and didn't worry too much. But the night before his appointment, while driving on a foggy highway, he could barely see two feet in front of his car and was crawling along at barely 30 miles per hour, he says. It was at that point that he realized his vision issue was serious.
His exam resulted in a diagnosis of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), a rare genetic disease that results in significant, permanent vision loss in both eyes, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Within two weeks of the first onset of symptoms, he was legally blind.
But Schwerbrock hasn't let his vision impairment keep him from doing what he loves: lifting weights and helping others start their strength-training journey. In July 2020, he took that passion one step further by creating Cane and Able Fitness, an online resource of adaptive fitness information for people with visual impairments. Here's how Schwerbrock is making fitness more accessible for anyone with a visual impairment; plus, his best gym advice for individuals with vision loss.
How Cane and Able Fitness Was Born
After his LHON diagnosis, Schwerbrock attended a master's program for kinesiology in Chicago near his sister, who was able to help him navigate the city and his new lifestyle — one that now involved a cane. Eventually, he moved to Alaska to work as a strength and conditioning coach for the United States Army. Along the way, it became clear that staying active (especially through strength training) was an essential part of his mental health, he says.
"I tried to make as little change as possible to my routine [after my diagnosis] because the gym was my happy place," he explains. "I adapted quickly [to my new lifestyle] because I just kept at it." In fact, after his disease had fully progressed into legal blindness, Schwerbrock began competing in Strongman competitions (a weight-lifting sport in which competitors complete a variety of strength-based tasks). He even won Strongest Man in Illinois for his weight class in 2019, a testament to his grit and the possibilities still ahead of him.
I tried to make as little change as possible to my routine [after my diagnosis], because the gym was my happy place. I adapted quickly [to my new lifestyle] because I just kept at it.
During the COVID pandemic, Schwerbrock realized that the strategies he'd picked up for working out with a visual impairment needed to be shared with others, especially since he had fitness credentials and past experience working in weight rooms. (In addition to having an M.S. in kinesiology, Schwerbrock is a NASM-certified personal trainer, a certified strength and conditioning coach, and a functional movement specialist.)
Despite Schwerbrock's expertise, he says he felt that people still doubted his ability to strength train and assumed he couldn't do many exercises. "I realized if I was getting questioned so much, how much worse were other people being doubted who aren't 6'3" and 220 pounds and known for doing this stuff all the time?" he says. "What if they haven't been pursuing strength training for very long? How much are they being doubted, whether by themselves or by others, and how little do they know?"
With that, Cane and Able Fitness was born in 2020. The website offers accessible, unintimidating information on strength training, mobility, nutrition, and more. And it's all delivered in a straightforward, encouraging way — without making the user feel babied or patronized, an important distinction to Schwerbrock. Today, Cane and Able Fitness has led accessibility-focused virtual workshops, seminars, and calls to organizations all over the world. Schwerbrock also offers consulting services for the visually impaired community on gym-specific adaptations (think: how to adjust exercises for visual impairments or plan workouts that don't use a ton of equipment, making it easier to set up in a crowded space). In addition, Cane and Able Fitness offers remote coaching for people with visual impairments, and they also regularly create free accessibility resources (such as workout programs or cooking tips for the community on the Cane and Able Fitness blog and social media accounts.
Best Fitness Tips for Those with Visual Impairment
For someone with a visual impairment, working out — whether at a gym or at home — may feel intimidating at first, especially if they're new to fitness in the first place. Not to mention, "the lack of immediate accessibility and organization at a gym can be a really big issue," notes Schwerbrock. A crowded gym, a confusing layout, equipment strewn haphazardly across the floor or reracked incorrectly, or new machines can all be extra difficult to navigate with a visual impairment (and potentially even unsafe).
However, finding a regular movement practice (especially one that involves strength training) is crucial to staying healthy and being able to function independently with a visual impairment, says Schwerbrock. Here, Schwerbrock shares the best exercise tips for people with visual impairments.
Get acclimated to the gym's layout and equipment.
To get beginners comfortable at the gym, Schwerbrock created a free gym acclimation course with documents and YouTube videos, all designed to demystify the space for people with visual impairments. In it, he offers best practices for exploring the gym and building independence when working out. His best advice for starting your gym exploration? Take a day to simply walk around the gym and note where things are, how equipment is organized, and what dumbbells, weight plates, and other common equipment is present (and whether it's easy to distinguish different sizes or weights by touch, rather than by sight). It's also helpful to introduce yourself to gym staff in case you need additional assistance acclimating or help throughout your time there.
Set up a home workout space.
Working out at home can be more mentally accessible for people with visual impairments, if that's an option. "Since you're especially familiar with your environment, you're not as scared to move around," notes Schwerbrock. Plus, you're able to decide what organization of your space works best for your needs.
Prioritize posture exercises and lower-body strength.
While general strength training and movement are appropriate for most fitness routines, those with visual impairments need to focus on posture exercises and lower body training that directly counteract the lacking capacities that stem from sight loss. For example, people with visual impairments often need to train neck retraction (aka pulling the head and neck back from a forward-leaning position), neck extension (aka tilting the head backward until the chin points up toward the sky), and the rhomboid muscles in the upper back.
These muscles need extra attention because people with visual impairments might hunch forward more often, whether to physically get closer to a phone, book, or screen that they're reading or because they're less likely to make eye contact as a social norm and will have their head down as they take in their environment, says Schwerbrock.
People with visual impairments, especially those who use a cane, might also "short step" to protect themselves from running into an obstacle. A short stride is a quad-dominant movement pattern that prevents hip extension (aka "opening" the hip joint so the angle between the pelvis and thigh increases), glute engagement, and full range of motion of the legs. To address these muscle imbalances, Schwerbrock programs Bulgarian split squats with a handhold or tool to assist with balance, as well as hip flexor stretches.
Strengthen your mind-body connection.
In addition, build your mind-body connection and learn how certain movement patterns feel when they're done correctly, advises Schwerbrock. "Tactile cues are huge" without the ability to use mirrors or videos to check form, he emphasizes. "Get used to how a squat should feel and how a hip hinge should feel, and get used to those differences."
Above all else, find a good support system that's willing to help you as you adjust to life without clear vision — but build your own independence at the same time, advises Schwerbrock. "In the end, you're responsible for pursuing these avenues of fitness that help you take care of yourself," he says.