Certain fitness regimens like CrossFit can be adapted to make them a better fit post-injury.
After a spinal cord injury, it’s no surprise that life changes. Even daily tasks, like getting dressed in the morning, may become more difficult. Depending on a patient’s injury, however, certain exercises can help those with spinal cord injuries improve function and adapt to using a wheelchair.
When it comes to an exercise program, those with spinal cord injuries should first consult their doctor and physical or occupational therapist to determine appropriate activities. After establishing a plan, patients can focus on increasing their strength and flexibility where mobile.
Knowing one’s body and understanding how an injury can increase complications will help a patient and their care team better form a wellness program that can respond to the body’s individual needs. That includes accounting for not only potential cardiovascular issues but skin-related complications due to injury, since if a person is immobile or using their body in different ways, skin can become compromised.
Here are some things to keep in mind for improving fitness post-injury:
Start with functional movement.
Patients shouldn’t enter into an intense exercise routine immediately after sustaining a spinal cord injury. Initially, rehabilitation will focus on functional activities, injury education, wheelchair movement and basic exercises appropriate for their type and level of injury.
Make sure to discuss more aggressive training programs with a doctor or rehab specialist. Once patients complete their rehab program, they can transition to a fitness program that will fit their injury and their lifestyle.
Focus on your upper body and core.
For many spinal cord injury patients, the exercises they select will depend upon what muscle groups they’re able to move.
For higher injuries, activities should focus on shoulder flexibility, strength and proper mechanics to prevent shoulder injury. This will help patients propel themselves in a wheelchair and improve their ability to transfer themselves (moving from a wheelchair to a bed or chair) or even use a walker if they have the ability to walk. Upper body exercises like chest press, lifts or rows can be adapted to a seated position to help patients increase their strength without requiring them to stand.
Patients with lower spinal cord injuries should integrate more core and back strengthening exercises. This will offer stability during daily activities as well as increased motion for more complex movements. Specific exercises can include pullups, planks or bench press. Patients can also complete lat pulldowns and ITYs – an exercise where arm movements form the shape of each letter – to work on strengthening their back muscle groups.
We also encourage patients to stretch out their anterior muscle groups by laying on their stomach or performing a pec stretch while lying on their backs.
In addition to stretching and strengthening, patients should engage in conditioning activities that are appropriate for their injury to improve cardiovascular endurance.
Do exercises you enjoy.
Patients with spinal cord injuries can participate in many different types of activities. Everything from wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, hand cycling and even CrossFit can be a great way to learn to adjust to an injury while staying active. For my patients at Orlando Health, I recommend finding something with a social component, like our adaptive CrossFit program, where we work with trainers to focus specifically on patients’ needs while encouraging community interaction.
Use the right equipment.
When exercising, patients should be aware that the equipment they choose to use matters. For those who are performing more dynamic exercises or playing adaptive sports as part of their approved training regimen, a specialized wheelchair with a wider base of support will give them more stability. Athletes using heavier weights will need a wheelchair with a higher weight limit.
For patients with limited hand function, adaptive gloves can loop or hook onto weights or bars to ensure a secure hold and help them safely complete exercises.
By Erin Jones, Contributor