How many times have you read about walking for exercise? The articles tell us to just get out there and walk. It’ll improve you circulation, your heart and lungs will be healthier, you’ll lose pounds and every part of you will benefit.
But what happens if you can’t walk? What happens to your body when you stop exercising because you’ve lost the movement in your legs, arms or more because of a spinal cord injury (SCI)?
After hearing David Ditor, associate professor of the Department of Kinesiology (the study of human movement) at Brock University, talk about the benefits of exercise on a body that won’t voluntarily move, I decided to go to Brock and take a look at what’s going on.
Ditor, who trained at McMaster, and did his post-doctoral work at the Robarts Research Institute, specializes in spinal cord injury and the roll of exercise in preventing and reversing secondary health complications. He also teaches a fourth year class in spinal cord injury — the only one offered in Canada.
There is also a lab and research component to his work and that is studying various aspects of function after spinal injury and the role of exercise in most people.
Having already grown out of one gym/lab space, Ditor works in a fairly large area, the walls lined with all manner of cool contraptions it would take an engineer to figure out.
There is a body weight support treadmill with harnesses that suspend a person above it so they don’t bear weight and can walk. And, functional electrical stimulation (FES) machines that make arms and legs, that don’t ordinarily move, cycle and walk. There is also wheelchair access weight training and aerobic training to keep your heart and lungs healthy.
“Exercise rehabilitation for people with SCI is just becoming appreciated as a priority,” he said, as he explained that exercise for the 15 people ranging in age from the teens to 70s, is fully supervised one on one, and manned by energetic, personable and keen Brock students and volunteers.
“The health problems we see are usually due to lack of activity not the SCI. Inactivity results in muscle atrophy which causes a range of problems. Muscles store glucose, and therefore atrophy can lead to type 2 diabetes. Muscles also acts like a cushion between bones and surfaces and protects skin while seated or lying down. The abdominal muscles allow you to cough. Without coughing, you risk respiratory infections.
“People need muscle and strength to transfer which is important for independence and health. Not being able to transfer means going into a care situation and that means money. Muscles mass maintains health, independence and quality of life.”
The spinal cord also controls all organs, so problems with blood pressure, bladder and bowel function, temperature control, chronic pain and sexual dysfunction can all result from spinal cord injury. And then there’s the psychosocial aspect of it… your mental wellbeing.
The machinery in the gym is likely worth $130,000 and there’s more money available for equipment thanks to the Rick Hansen Foundation, the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation and the SCI Solutions Network.
“Right now, until we know more, we can only take people with SCI injuries and we have room for more,” David said. He explained that most injuries are caused by car accidents, falls and sporting accidents.
Dino Sabic, 19, of St. Catharines, a paraplegic as a result of a diving accident, was hooked up to a FES cycle that stimulates his leg muscles to cycle while sitting in his chair.
“It gives me a cardiovascular workout and helps reduce my muscle spasms,” Dino said. “It also decreases the swelling in my ankles and helps my circulatory problems. I love it here. I get a workout.”
Kaitlyn Snyder, 19, of Mississauga and a second year Brock student, has been working in the SCI exercise gym since October.
“I love the atmosphere. It’s so rewarding. I’ve seen people improve since I began.”
Fifteen or 20 years ago, spinal cord injury rehab was just beginning but now places like Brock are offering an opportunity to anyone with SCI to do what they can to stay as healthy as possible and, did I mention, it’s free.
Linda Crabtree Special to The Standard