Guide helps people with spinal injuries get fit

As a younger man, Jake Lawless would tell friends that if they had a car accident with him as a passenger, they had better kill him because he couldn’t bear to live his life in a wheelchair.

Then at 24, he fell off a roof and landed on his head. The injury left him a high functioning quadriplegic.

“My injury was my worst nightmare come true,” says Lawless, 38.

Lawless knew physical activity was the key to his recovery. He credits an intensive rehabilitation routine with helping him deal with his disability and learn to walk again, a skill he lost again after another accident destroyed his knee.

Now a peer support worker, Lawless teaches adults with spinal injuries of the value of staying fit. He notes the biggest challenge for many is finding out what to do.

That barrier has been knocked down by a new fitness guide developed by McMaster University researchers. It lists activities for people with spinal injuries, how much they should do each week, provides a weekly action plan and strategies to overcome obstacles.

“This helps people with spinal cord injuries get going,” says Kathleen Martin Ginis, a kinesiology professor.

Less than half of the estimated 86,000 Canadians with a spinal cord injury are physically active. While fitness is important for everyone, Martin Ginis notes that it is critical for people with disabilities who are at risk of further complications.

The leading cause of death for people with spinal injuries is chronic disease but little information is available on fitness.

“People with disabilities in general are forgotten when it comes to physical activity,” she says.

Lawless, who now lives in Ayr and is touring with the Rick Hansen relay, believes it provides vital information.

“The hardest part is starting,” he says, noting that the mental benefits are just as important as the physical.

“It’s critical for their quality of life,” agrees Bill Adair, executive director of the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario.

One of his staff members with a spinal injury started has lost 13 pounds in five months following the Mac program and has never felt better. “It has made a huge difference.”

The tool kit is available online and will be distributed nationally. For more information, visit:

Try these activities

Manual chair

  • Wheel for fun and endurance
  • Cycle using hand cycle or stationary bike
  • Swim
  • Build strength with a resistance band
  • Lift weights, even cans and water bottles will do
  • Rake the lawn or shovel snow

Power chair

  • Use a movement therapy machine
  • Swim with assistance
  • Use an arm ergometer
  • Do standing frame exercises
  • Dance
  • Curl
  • Use cable pulleys
  • Practise yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi


By Nicole MacIntyre

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