Cork gym offers 'lifting and laughter' for children with special needs

‘Lifting and Laughing’ is the motto of a Cork gym that welcomes young people with a range of health conditions. SHAMIM MALEKMIAN spoke to owner Eoin Murphy and some of his clients
Cork gym offers 'lifting and laughter' for children with special needs

Eoin Murphy training Ryan and Eoghan Dolan at his EMF gym in Blarney.

ON a recent Tuesday afternoon, Eoin Murphy, a sports trainer and owner of a small fitness centre in Blarney, was expecting a group of young clients.

The 30-year-old, who founded Eoin Murphy Fitness (EMF) in 2014, has recently added the motto ‘Lifting and Laughing’ to the gym’s name, deciding that elevating spirits is just as important as lifting weights.

Eoin has now dedicated a substantial amount of time and energy to training children with special needs.

‘Lifting and Laughing’ sums up his friendly, laidback approach to training, challenging what he describes as an insignificant, yet quite “loud and visual toxic culture” within the industry.

“Yes, it is impressive to have a bodybuilder’s body, but our focus is more toward normal people doing great things,” explains Eoin, who wears a blue uniform that describes him as his gym’s “chief of banter”.

To make his young clients feel at home, he has decorated the fitness centre with toys and pictures of children’s superheroes: Superman, Batman and Hulk.

The only bodybuilding image is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that is also satirical since Eoin has placed a cropped image of his own head on the American actor’s body!

Eoin says: “We have pictures of superheroes because this is a gym for superdads, supermums, super brothers and super sisters living an ordinary life. So, we tried to make this place as welcoming as possible.”

Olan O’Riordan, an eight-year-old with dyspraxia —a condition affecting physical coordination — and joint hypermobility, is a regular user of EMF’s services.

He has low muscle tone due to dyspraxia and joint hypermobility causes his joints to dislocate. So, he needs regular training for muscle gain and joint strength.

His mother, Donna Dineen, says she tried to seek help from the HSE before turning to the private sector. 

“He’s been on a waiting list for 20 months now, and he still hasn’t been seen publicly,” she says.

“And apparently when you do get seen they offer you a block of six weeks when you do one session a week for six weeks, and that’s it, that’s not enough for [Olan].

Donna says, due to his physical disability, her son cannot participate at his school’s sports activities, causing him to feel isolated. Eoin’s gym, she says, has been a godsend.

“Olan doesn’t like joining hurling or soccer clubs, he tried all those, but he couldn’t keep up with the other kids,” she explains. 

“He wasn’t strong enough. He used to be tired all the time and crying, and then we found here, and he loves it.”

Olan, who has just finished a series of one-on-one pull-up and climbing sessions, says he likes coming to EMF “because it makes me strong”.

Eoin, whose partner Bernadette has recently had a baby boy, says moments like when Olan tells him about his day or his holidays, keep him motivated to continue training children.

“My best moment is when these children come out of their shells in an environment that is outside their comfort zone,” he says.

“You see how quiet [Olan] is, but he came in the other day and told me all about his holiday in Kerry.”

Ryan Dolan, a 19-year-old with Asperger’s, dyspraxia and dyslexia, who comes to EMF with his brother Eoghan, says he felt “bullied” in other sports facilities, but has found acceptance and understanding at his new gym.

“I didn’t use to get much exercise, because I went to another gym and there wasn’t much friendliness around,” he says. “They were more judgmental, all about big muscles rather than being fit.”

Ryan says training at EMF has “broadened my ability to do more activities such as kayaking and also communicating with people”.

His 13-year-old brother Eoghan, who also has dyspraxia and Asperger’s, thinks EMF’s focus on the “mental side of things”, which is symbolised in their motto, makes the place “feel welcoming”.

Eoghan and his brother also have an auto immune disorder which causes swelling and pain in the joints, and he says exercising helps to alleviate that.

Eoin, who has a BA degree in Recreation and Leisure from CIT, thinks the HSE has failed to offer proper fitness services to children like Eoghan or Olan because the health authority focuses more resources on emergency care than on preventative measures or mental health.

“That is maybe a political observation, but if we want to solve the problem, we need to, you know, go back to the start,” he says. “It’s too late when our children grow up, and they’re out-of-shape, diabetic or have heart disease.”

Eoin says the current system, perhaps unwittingly, favours medical procedures over efforts to tackle obesity, smoking, depression or drug and alcohol dependence.

The solution, he says, is to invest in children’s fitness programmes, in places that are friendly and inclusive of children’s various mental and physical disabilities.

A 2010 study in the Journal Health Affairs also found that investing in wellness programmes and preventative care, may not be cheap, but will improve people’s quality of life at a reasonable price.

“I guess it’s up to us to go to the HSE and say here is the framework, this is what it costs, refer these patients to us,” says Eoin.

EMF also regularly hosts fundraising events for Pieta House and other charitable organisations. See www.emf.ie for more.

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