Sara's strong story

Sheffield-based Sara Ali, 28 was born with a cyst on her brain, and has cerebellar ataxia. She started seeing a physiotherapist for strengthening in 2014

There are so many benefits with strengthening. I feel more energised after doing it, and it feels really good to be able to do more.

‘My cerebellar ataxia makes my core unstable and makes me lose my balance, while spasticity from disc prolapses in my neck causes my muscles to be stiff and tight and makes it difficult to move and to stop myself from falling when I lose my balance.

Also, I have weakness of my limbs, particularly my lower limbs, which makes it hard to lift my legs when I am walking.

‘Growing up, my ataxia limited me in terms of what I could and wanted to do. I never was able to ride a bike and had to give up dancing and other sports I enjoyed like netball, but my main mobility problems started during my first year at uni, whilst out for a run one day. It felt like my legs just forgot what they were supposed to do, crossing over themselves and not moving when I wanted them to. 

‘The fear of falling has now become more of an issue as I do fall frequently and because of my weak core muscles I find it difficult to get myself up.

Over the past years these problems have got worse, and I constantly feel both mentally and physically exhausted trying to compensate and as a result my confidence suffered until I started seeing my current physio. 

‘I have a really good relationship with my physio. We talk a lot about the difficulties I’ve been having so she’ll ask me if I’ve had any falls and what I’ve been struggling with. Then she tailors the programme for me.

That approach works for me because what I feel changes day to day or week to week - one week my legs could be feeling really stiff, then the next the next they might feel less stiff but my back might really hurt instead. 

‘When she first mentioned strengthening I had this preconceived idea that I’d end up looking like a bodybuilder - I didn’t want to look that muscular! But my physio helped explain that I wouldn’t. 

A women doing an overhead press exercise with bottles of water
One of Sara's goals is to strengthen her arms

‘One of our goals is to strengthen my arms because when I fall my legs aren’t always strong enough to get myself back up.

We also do a lot of core work, and stretching for lower limbs, my back and my hamstrings to counteract the tightness. 

‘She’s very good at motivating me. Her attitude is you can do anything if you put in the effort and go for it.

I see going to see my physio as a psychological thing, too - I always feel better after I see her. She’s very encouraging about my dream of living independently, and gears me up to achieve that goal. 

‘I just try to sneak things in to the day – when I’m making a cup of tea I’ll do some squats or push-ups on the counter, or If I’m going upstairs I may hang back on the steps to stretch my Achilles and calves, or do twists to loosen up my back. You can do these without any equipment. 

‘At times when I don’t feel like exercising, I have to push myself, but when I actually do it I feel so much better. My mood is improved and I feel more motivated for other things. The feeling of release from a good stretch may last a couple of hours but the mental effects last longer. 

‘There are so many benefits with strengthening. I feel more energised after doing it, and it feels really good to be able to do more. 

‘I want to go travelling and be able to go on adventures that involve a lot of physical activity like climbing. That goal makes strengthening easier and make more sense. 

‘It’s not a quick fix and there is a long way to go before I feel fully strong but I can look forward to how I want to feel and be.’ 

Last reviewed: