BARRY NELSON meets a group of patients who are enjoying life on the rebound.

PICTURES of promising young gymnasts line the walls of the sports hall at Deerness Leisure Centre at Ushaw Moor, near Durham. The impressive sports centre is equipped with a state-of-the art full-size trampoline which is set into the ground so athletes can work out at floor level. But when gymnasts are not somersaulting through the air, the trampoline is used by a very different group of people.

Brian is in his 30s and lives in a residential home in Durham. Apart from having severe learning disabilities, he has no speech, is totally deaf and has poor vision. But with encouragement from trained therapists, Brian has learned to "fly" for a few minutes, thanks to what's known as rebound therapy.

Watching Brian bouncing up on to his feet and then down onto his bottom and back again, it's easy to see why he finds it so much fun. But rebound therapy is not just about enjoyment, it's an excellent way of exercising little-used groups of muscles and helping people with balance and posture problems walk more easily.

Bouncing in front of Brian, eyes fixed on Brian's face and occasionally signing instructions to him, is Louis Bell, a rebound therapist who works for County Durham Priority Services Trust, the local mental health and learning disability service.

"Brian has come on in leaps and bounds. He was very hesitant at first but he has really taken to the trampoline and is doing brilliantly," says Louis, who has been working with people with learning disabilities for five years. After a ten-minute work-out on the canvas, Brian signals that he is tired by wiping his brow. Next on is Gary, 35, from Esh Winning, who is also making great progress.

"I've been coming for four or five months now. I was a bit worried at first," says Gary, who also has learning disabilities. "I've got bad balance and my mobility was not good. This has helped me a lot."

Like most of Louis's clients, Gary started off in a sitting position, gradually building up to more active routines. "I've been up on my feet for three weeks now. It's great," says Gary, who describes Louis as having "a great bond" with people on the trampoline.

Few people know about the benefits of rebound therapy but Louis is a passionate advocate. "It's actually the only equipment where you can give someone who has little or no movement a cardiovascular workout. It exercises groups of muscles without you realising it's happening."

Having a floor level trampoline is a great advantage, allowing therapists and clients direct entry without safety worries.

"Normal trampolines are more than three feet off the gym floor so we have to use hoists to get people on," says Louis, who believes that the trampoline is the only one of its kind in County Durham.

Rebound therapy is particularly beneficial for muscles in the back, trunk, abdomen, legs and arms. Apart from straightforward exercise it also helps with balance, posture and self-esteem.

Even clients who are hyper-active can have an energetic workout without bouncing out of control. By using a technique known as "dampening" the therapist can take most of the bounce out of the canvas but still allow the client to exercise vigorously. They can even use the trampoline as a way to help manage weight.

But more than anything else, it is sheer, unadulterated fun. "You are actually weightless for a split second," says Louis. "It's a great feeling."