Meet the U-Jam instructor pushing the boundaries of fitness for wheelchair users and others with disabilities.

My name is Ania Flatau and I live in San Diego, California. I am a graduate student and an athlete, and I have a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise science. I am also a Group X instructor for U-Jam Fitness.

When I am not studying I am usually teaching U-Jam Fitness, doing an organized sport such as wheelchair basketball or something with weights such as free weights. I’ve been in a wheelchair pretty much for most of my life. (I have a disability called Spina Bifida.) I love to move and am doing something active every day.

This is my transformation story.

24Life: Tell us about your fitness journey—where does it begin?

Ania Flatau (AF): My fitness journey really began when I was five years old. I swam and competed at a national level until I was 13. When competitive swimming no longer became a part of my routine I started doing things like wheelchair basketball. I was really fascinated by wheelchair dance and got involved in wheelchair ballroom/Latin about a year after I had stopped swimming competitively.

Several years later I had decided that I always want to be involved in dancing but I really didn’t want to be in a competitive sport anymore. I wanted to get involved in things for my own happiness and wanted to develop a keener sense of self.

I started out with Zumba Fitness, and when I was 27 I discovered U-Jam Fitness and haven’t turned back since. I found a cardio format that is accessible to all levels and body types and is fun.

24Life: Do you remember the moment that you decided to pursue becoming a U-Jam instructor?

AF: I remember my very first U-Jam Fitness class was in Monterey, California. I saw U-Jam was on the schedule, so I took the class. I remember going to the class and hearing music that was young and fun. And then I remember seeing the co-teacher: She’s smiling the whole time. She was walking up to everybody, high-fiving everyone and there was this energy in the room that was addictive. I remember looking at the co-instructor and thinking, “Oh my gosh. That is who I want to be.”

The instructor saw that I was a wheelchair user. She had never had someone in her class who was a wheelchair user before. She approached me and she said, “Think about the amazing things that you can do. The lives that you can touch.”

That was the moment. I mean, it was not a clear-cut “I’m doing this; I’m going to make an impact; it’s going to be wonderful.” I definitely had some fears and there were some moments where I was like, “Wait. What did you just do?” I remember going inside the building for the instructor workshop and thinking, “Okay, I’m here. I’m just going to take the experience for what it is and see what it’s like.” And the more that I kept working and seeing that I was actually getting support from people and advice—the fact that they were so invested in me and invested in my self-improvement—was enough for me to say that this is the path that I should be on.

24Life: Who helped you along the way?

AF: The U-Jam instructors in Monterey as a whole were always there for me and they were the ones who pushed me to actually go through the process. My trainer, Amy C-Rad, helped me with finding ways to adopt the movements, things like that.

I have 100 U-Jam instructors on my Facebook page. I have a huge network and people who have constantly reached out to me to give me pointers on how to improve myself as an instructor. And I think that’s what so powerful about U-Jam. It’s like everyone’s got your back. I think as a whole, U-Jam is all about really just helping support people’s visions.

24Life: What kept you motivated to stay the course? Where do you find motivation?

AF: What motivates me to stay the course is to remind myself how far I’ve come. Change is not a linear process. We have our ups and downs but as long as I see the downs as a natural part of life and I pick myself up from there I’m more apt to be successful.

I’m also motivated by being a Group X instructor. A former teacher of mine said, “People are counting on you.” That has stuck with me. I look forward to sharing my love for U-Jam Fitness with others and seeing how other people’s lifestyles change for the better.

24Life: Are there moments of self-doubt? What do those look like and how do you overcome those?

AF: I think especially in the beginning, it was pretty scary for me. I went into it because I love to dance and I wanted to take a leadership role. I wanted to change the face of aerobic exercise for people with disabilities.

I really just want to see a change, but I think there definitely have been and still are moments where there’s self-doubt. There’s definitely been moments where I was like, “What am I doing here? Am I really going to be making an impact?” But the more that I work towards the goal, the easier it is for me to be like, “Oh, okay. This is what I signed up for.”

24Life: What surprised you the most about yourself during this journey?

AF: I’m stronger than I thought. I’m capable of doing more than my brain was telling me I could do. I’m always setting new goals and testing my limits (safely) so I surprise myself everyday.

24Life: What was the most challenging part of your journey and how did you overcome it?

AF: Consistency. I just kept going until I found something I knew I would love to do everything day, and I reminded myself of the long-term benefits of what I was doing.

What I absolutely love is that when I became an instructor, when I went through the instructor workshop, I went through the exact same process. I had to do a video. They watched my movements just as closely as they would for any other instructor. Nobody was giving me shortcuts.

24Life: Did you have a specific goal in mind?

AF: My goal was to adopt a long-term lifestyle that was healthy and would not result in burn-out or injury that would prevent me from being able to be active in the long run.

24Life: What did you do when you would make a mistake or get frustrated with your results?

AF: I’d do just that: Get frustrated. But then I’d figure out what I need to do to modify what I’m doing so I don’t get frustrated. Mistakes are part of the process and what have helped me become a better athlete because I choose to learn from them. I kept reminding myself that change isn’t a linear process. We make a mistake, we modify what we’ve been doing and as a result, we grow.

24Life: What is your go-to workout?

AF: Currently it’s U-Jam Fitness for cardio and I’ll do free weights and TheraBand work. I also enjoy doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

24Life: What advice do you have for others with a disability that want to take or teach a Group X class?

24Life: Any specific rituals that you have that you think may be helpful to others?

AF: Every body is unique. Find what works for you and keeps you happy and healthy in all aspects of life.

24Life: What’s next for you? Do you have any future goals that you’re going after next (or currently)?

AF: My goal as a Group X instructor is to provide classes not only for wheelchair users but people with all types of abilities. I want to have a class that’s offered regularly to those with multiple ability levels. In my eyes, that’s how exercise should be. There’s power in being a unit.

If you’re a person with a disability or have at some point shied away from exercise, be confident that the door is open for you. I’m currently the only Group X instructor for U-Jam Fitness that’s a wheelchair user. I’d like to see that network grow. I also have a goal to audition to become a Group X instructor in the gym system. Who knows, it’s worth a shot right? I think too, once I’m done with grad school, I’d like to pick up where I left off and become a certified personal trainer.

Photo credit: Alicia Schwerin; Eugene Ramos

Please note that the results that Ania has experienced are unique to her, and your results may vary. Always consult your health care provider before undertaking changes in your diet or fitness regimen.