Love activity: pushing the boat out for patients

You might not think sailing would be open to all, but physio Elizabeth Gradwell shows how it can enable people with long-term conditions or disabilities to enjoy physical activity

Physiotherapist and Royal Yachting Association (RYA) volunteer Elizabeth Gradwell highlights the amazing personal achievements her patients, many with multiple complex needs, experienced after discovering sailing.

She shares ideas for members to help get more patients with long-term conditions (LTCs) and disabilities out in a boat and enjoying an active lifestyle they may never have thought possible.

Elizabeth has extensive experience across both acute and community settings, including frailty and LTCs. Her voluntary work at Frensham Ponds Sailability – one of more than 200 RYA Sailability centres across the UK – has opened her eyes to what patients can enjoy.

On average, 5,000 people take part in Sailability every month, which makes it one of the most popular fully accessible sports in the UK. 

‘To see someone who perhaps is confined to a wheelchair or has to use oxygen to breathe and then see them free on the water smiling is just the best rehabilitation available,’ she says.

‘Obviously the benefits are both mental and physical. The well-being boost of being active outdoors and feeling the adrenaline flow ticks all the boxes. A sailing session gives hope to many who thought that pleasure and self-worth had passed them by.’

Get loving activity

This year, the CSP’s Love activity, Hate exercise? campaign has a particular focus on reaching people who do not exercise because of fear, anxiety, pain or disability. The CSP wants them to know that, with the help of physiotherapy staff, they can have a more active life. 

You can also sign up for updates about this year's campaign - just select ‘Love activity, Hate exercise?’ under the ‘get involved’ section when you manage your emails.

Case study

Elizabeth shares one of her patient’s stories to highlight what can be achieved out on the water

Sarah with multiple sclerosis

Sarah has end-stage MS and can only move her right arm with very little power but some grasp. Cognitively she is struggling, and she has speech problems.

She uses a tilt-in-space chair or is confined to bed rest, hoisted for all transfers. Fed by percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube and 100 per cent nil by mouth, Sarah has a high Waterlow score and is at huge risk of pressure sores. Secretion management is difficult and she can choke if not assisted with mechanical clearance. Her respiratory function is compromised due to weak intercostal muscles and her lack of ability to cough – a chest infection is her enemy. 

In her younger years, she was a children’s nurse and enjoyed exploring caves in her spare time. She was fearless and a lover of life. 

Since she was introduced to Sailability , however, Sarah has been enjoying many happy hours sailing and it is now the highlight of her week. It also gives her family such a thrill watching her enjoy carefree time. 

Sailability is able to manage the complex needs of Sarah, and others with disabilities too, through initiatives, which include

  • The hidden disabilities: Patients with respiratory disease can sail safely with their oxygen in the boat and inhalers in their pockets. Need to be risk assessed regarding wind strength. 
  • More physically disabled: Amputees gain balance and enjoy the competitive spirit. Hoist slings need to be adapted. Boats can be easily adapted for upper limb amputees. 
  • Seriously disabled: Need ‘buddies’ to sail, but even if they are unable to assist with the boat, the freedom and serenity of the water is very calming. 
  • Learning disabilities: People gain a feeling of being included in a sporting environment, they get autonomy and the family benefits just as much too.

    Top tips for referring people to Sailability

    • Find a centre near you
    • Contact the local sailing club for more information. Or even visit them, preferably with your patient, to watch a taster session. 
    • Invite your local Sailability representative to attend a team meeting to educate you. 
    • Run through a checklist with your patient. Can they swim? Do they like water or are they frightened? Were they sailors in the past?
    • Do they know any other friends who go sailing? 

    Points to be aware of

    • If finance is a barrier (such the cost of transport to the club), the patient is entitled to personal independent payment benefits. These cover the costs of pursuing a hobby.
    • Check your local group can help with all patient needs, for example, a hoist. 

    RYA Sailability manager Joff McGill says:

    ‘Physio referrals are really important, a way of connecting people who could benefit from sailing with those who offer some great activity. It all starts with a conversation so contact us now to talk through how sailing could work for you and the people you work with.’

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