Chris Ruden, a college student and personal trainer, is a very inspiring young man. He was born with a disability and was diagnosed in his first year in college with type 1 diabetes. As is often the case, he was discouraged by the diagnosis, but while convalescing in the hospital, he decided to become a personal trainer and help others in similar situations. In this interview, he tells us why he considers diabetes a blessing in some ways.
Nadia: As someone who was born with seven fingers and a short left arm and who later developed type 1 diabetes, did you struggle with the perception of being disabled?
Chris: My family was really accepting, and a lot of my friends were really accepting as well. I didn’t really think anything of it. I was in a Christian school, so I was kind of sheltered, but when I got into middle school, I did encounter some adversity that make me realize that I was a little different. Some people made comments, and I was kind of a little bullied in middle school, so I realized that people weren’t always nice. But after I made the decision to become a trainer, I realized that in order to help other people, I have to be confident and I have to be strong. What makes a person important and basically strong is how he feels about himself and how confident he is.
Nadia: What were some of the things that you had to put up with in middle school?
Chris: Going to middle school was my first time outside of a Christian school where people knew my whole life. The middle school kids weren’t aware of my disability, so when they saw me, they would make comments or just point it out, and it was kind of weird to me because until then I was comfortable and had no problems. That’s when I started to hide and be more self-conscious. I was almost socially awkward at that point.
Once I got to high school, I started to become more confident through playing drums and dancing. I started to break dance and learned to do hip hop dance, and that’s when I really got known at the school for being the dancer, being the drummer, and being the kid who’s disabled but does all this crazy stuff. So everyone started to respect me more, and that’s when I started to slowly build confidence and say, “Hey, you know, even though I’m technically disabled, I’m doing better than most kids out there.” I made a conscious decision to progress and not let the disability hold me back.
Nadia: Did you ever feel that because you had a disability, you had to work harder at showing the other kids that you are just as capable?
Chris: I did feel like I needed to work harder, but at the same time, I always felt that I needed to challenge myself to progress and become better than I am and never settle. It was more like a challenge to myself to become a better person, and I kind of liked that I had to work harder because it showed that I had the dedication to do what other people say is hard, but is even harder for me, and I still accomplished it.
Nadia: As you were growing up, were you an active child? Did being active influence you in high school and later in choosing a career?
Chris: I was always pretty active. In high school, I started working out and played some sports, but I didn’t have a passion for any one thing. Working out was fun, but I didn’t realize that my passion was working out until I started to really get into it and started seeing changes in my body. People would ask me how I was going to work if I was disabled. They would say, “You only have two fingers on your left hand, so how are you going to do certain things?” That is actually what sparked my interest in working out.
Nadia: When were you diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?
Chris: I was 19 when I got diagnosed with diabetes. That is when I made a conscious decision to help other people while also helping myself get healthy. I realized how important it is to stay healthy, and I wanted to help other people overcome their adversities, whether physical, a disease, or a disability. I really wanted to help people because I know how it feels to lack self- confidence with a physical disability and with diabetes.
Nadia: When you started working out at the gym, what kind of accommodations did you have to make for yourself?
Chris: There were a ton of accommodations that I had to make. When I first went to the gym, I would often skip some exercises, like pull-ups or biceps curls or just general exercises that everyone else had no problem doing, because my left arm is slightly shorter than my right and I can’t fully grip the left handle as I would with my right. I found out as soon as I went to the gym that I basically had two options: Either I can’t do this at all, or I’m going to have to completely change almost every workout to accommodate myself. So I took the second option because I’m really focused on progressing, and I always want to challenge myself. I took that as a huge challenge. I basically found ways to do every exercise that a technically “normal” person could do.
I used a workout hook, which is like a weight-lifting hook. It wraps around my wrist and then it grabs dumbbells and bars. I can hold it, so it fixes the deficit in my left arm, and it allows me to hold weight so I can do all kinds of exercises. I can do pull-ups now, I can do everything. I’ve strengthened myself so much, and I’ve fixed a lot of imbalances that I have in my body, so I’m hiding the disability.
Nadia: Did you start this when you were still in high school, or is this something that developed as you graduated and found that fitness was an area that interested you?
Chris: In high school, I was basically just doing random exercises. I didn’t have a program, and I wasn’t really adapting to any specific exercises. Once I got diabetes in college, that’s when I really made the decision to research how to help my specific situation. From there, I learned that I can adapt that situation to other people’s situations or disabilities, and that’s when I really started to progress in my own body, as well as my training with my clients.
Nadia: Did that influence your decision in terms of what you wanted to study in college?
Chris: After I got diagnosed with diabetes, I was in the hospital for three days. The first day or so, I was really down on myself. I was kind of upset, thinking, “Why did all this have to happen to me? I already have a physical disability, why do I have to add an additional disease?” I was really negative, and then something just clicked. I realized that working out would be a huge advantage for me to make progress and basically become healthier and avoid diabetes complications. That’s when I really made the decision. I love working out and I love helping people, so why not do both of those things? That is when I switched my major. It seems like diabetes came for a reason. I almost feel like it was the best worst thing that could have happened to me.
Nadia: What did you switch your major to?
Chris: I switched my major to exercise science and health promotion, and I’m three semesters away from finishing my degree. I have also received several certificates that add to my working-out passion. That’s why I started a business that I called Adapt Wellness, because I had to adapt to everything. All my clients have to adapt too, no matter whether they’re disabled or not. Everyone has issues, whether they’re psychological or physical. Everyone has a situation, and everyone needs to adapt to it.
Nadia: Do you specialize in a particular kind of fitness?
Chris: I’m a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and that’s basically a general certification. It’s one of the top in the nation, and it allows me to train with special populations and general populations. The special populations include people with diabetes and people with heart conditions or weight issues, as well as everyday people. I’m taking on a multitude of clients to see where I really want to go once I graduate. I definitely have been doing a lot of rehab work lately and trying to work with a lot of people in the special populations. I’m also certified through Muscle Activation Techniques.
Nadia: What’s that?
Chris: Muscle Activation Techniques are a system of checks and balances that assess range of motion in the body and help correct instability and weaknesses, working with the mind-muscle connection and basically getting certain muscles to fire appropriately.
Nadia: I’m sure that you, like everybody else, have days when, for whatever reason, things bring you down or you don’t feel motivated. How do you overcome this feeling when you’re working with a client?
Chris: Well, the reason I know that I’ve found my calling and my passion in life is that if I’m down for any odd reason, the second my clients get there and I see their passion and determination, and I’m working with them and seeing that I’m helping them become more confident and look better and function better, I’m instantly in a better mood. All my problems disappear and I’m just in a zone. It’s amazing. I absolutely love what I do, and I don’t even think it’s work, because for me it’s an honor to work with some of these people. I know how it is to feel bad about yourself, so to help clients build confidence, that’s a huge inspiration for me. It is an instant mood fixer.
Nadia: Give us a picture of what a day with diabetes is like when you are working with clients.
Chris: Well, I’ve picked up a lot of clients recently, and my days are pretty busy with school and work. I’m pretty much working almost every day. Like I said, I love what I do, so I have no problem working all the time because it’s not really work for me. It’s very fun, what I do.
For my diabetes, basically I bring meals with me. I prepare meals, and I’m always on top of my sugars. I check my blood sugar four to eight times a day, depending on the day. I’m very cautious about my sugars. So my clients see how careful I am with diabetes, and they definitely respect how much I care about health, not just looking good, but functioning well and living a good life. I love to be an inspiration and role model for them to maintain their health, more so than just their aesthetic look.
Nadia: Do you test your blood sugars in front of clients and take your insulin if need be?
Chris: Everyone knows that I have my blood sugar kit with me. Some of my friends even ask, “Oh, have you checked your sugar today?” My friends care about me, so it’s great. I have a very good motivational circle. My clients and I end up developing a great bond, and I’m very open with my diabetes. I wear my pump like it’s a belt buckle because I’m proud to be diabetic. I have diabetes, and it’s benefited me so much. I know that sounds weird, and I’m probably the only person who’s happy to have diabetes in a sense, but it’s really given me so many opportunities. I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I didn’t get diabetes. So there are bad days with diabetes, when it’s frustrating, but I always overcome them because I know it’s up to me to control it, and I can make it better. So I really can’t complain. I’m just grateful to have the life I have now and to progress and see where I’m going to be in the future.
Nadia: That’s a wonderful attitude. As a type 1 who’s learned how to incorporate exercise into his life, what advice would you give to a newly diagnosed type 1 about exercise and fitness?
Chris: I would definitely suggest testing sugars constantly throughout the day, probably more than normal, four to eight times a day. Basically, diabetes is a sign for them to get on a healthy kick. It’s time to drop the sugars, drop the simple sugars and all the sodas and all the unnecessary foods that our society deems important, and become more healthy. Start working out, start eating better, a little more natural so your sugar doesn’t go out of control, and just check your sugar. For me, as a patient, this approach has really helped me.
Nadia: That’s great. (I’ll put in a little disqualifier for you here, just to clarify that you’re not speaking as a healthcare professional, but as a patient.) Thanks so much for your time today, Chris. You are truly an inspiration.