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What People Don’t Know About Staying Fit In a Wheelchair

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Spinal Cord Injury:

wheelchair-fitness“If I get too heavy, I can’t do basic things like shower or get myself in and out of my bed or car.”

I’m 31 years old, and I’ve been using a wheelchair since the age of five due to a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed from the waist down. Growing up overly aware of my lack of control of my lower body and in a family that’s battled weight issues, I was concerned about staying fit from a young age. For me, it’s always been about so much more than vanity—people in wheelchairs need to maintain a healthy weight in order to stay independent.

If I get too heavy, I can’t do basic things like shower or get myself in and out of my bed or car. The strength in my arms and stomach muscles are vital to everything I do from the moment I wake up. I can’t push myself around the city if I don’t consistently work to keep my strength up. Most people don’t realize this, but when you’re in a wheelchair, it’s so much more important to watch what you eat and keep moving. Otherwise, muscles that are weak to begin with become even weaker when you’re not consistently using them. In other words: You need to work twice as hard to get half as far.

For years, I limited myself mentally and physically because I thought things weren’t possible and I was afraid of hurting myself.  I thought that “running” (ie: pushing myself fast and quick) was enough, that I could eat the same as my able-bodied friends, and that I could do it all on my own. Yet through years of trial and error, I’ve learned there are way more options available to me than I thought and that I can find a fitness plan that works for me. Here, the lessons along the way about staying fit in a wheelchair.

You’re *Not* Too Fragile

I’m sure my orthopedist groans every time he sees a message from me, but I can do so much more than I originally thought because I’ve asked tons of questions about my limits. For example, when I was 12, I had rods put in my back to combat scoliosis, so I thought I shouldn’t be bending my back at all. After spending many years afraid that my back was too fragile to do back workouts or work on my lower abs, I found out that I can do exercises that bend my back, as long I don’t push past my personal comfort levels. And yes, I can work on my abs too, but instead of crunches I’ve found success with modified planks. I also made the mistake of assuming that just because my legs didn’t work, those muscles couldn’t be worked on. That’s also not true—there are machines out there that stimulate your muscles to keep them from deteriorating and boost overall blood flow, which helps circulation and breathing (both additional concerns for those in a wheelchair). You’ll never know what you can do if you don’t ask.

Sports Leagues Are Game-Changers

Depending on your ability, there’s a whole host of sports groups and leagues to join. It can be daunting to know where to begin, but the Challenged Athletes Foundation has great information and programs for everyone, whether you have a spinal cord injury, amputation, or visual impairment. When I lived in San Diego, I joined a tennis group that met a couple times a week. Tennis was great because it had me working on the different muscles in my arms, but also taught me to control movement through added use of my core. I didn’t realize how much strength it built in my arms until I had been playing several months and basic activities like picking up the cat were so much easier. It also allowed me to meet people in a similar situation as me who were in much better shape, which helped me learn a ton and kept me motivated on my own fitness journey. (We have 7 Mind Tricks for Self-Motivation.)


You Can Feel “Normal” At the Gym

When I first joined a gym over 10 years ago, I thought they were all the same and was disappointed that the only equipment I could use were the weights, so I didn’t stay a member long. A couple of years ago, I was inspired by a friend to try the gym scene again and started looking around. I was surprised to find that not only were there options, but gym managers were just as excited as I was for me to get into shape (and sometimes they’ll even offer special pricing for your personal needs). We all want to feel “normal”, so to me, the most important thing was having a place that felt inclusive, and that had staff that wasn’t afraid to work with someone with a disability. I was happily surprised about features like wheelchair-friendly showers (harder to find than you would think), lifts to help you into the pool, and adaptive gym equipment. I’ve also found that much of the equipment that looks super intimidating is usable if you just ask for help.

Group Fitness Classes Can Actually Be Freeing

When I was a member at Equinox in Boston, not only did they have adaptive equipment so I could take a regular a spin class, but they had instructors who were familiar with how to incorporate my limited mobility. Taking a regular spin class with able-bodied gym members or a Pilates class was such a freeing experience. Knowing that I’m pushing myself just as hard as everyone else is so motivating. It also helps the other people in the class look at disabled people a little bit differently. By the end of the class, I’m just another person on a bike, not a person in a wheelchair.

At-Home Workouts Are Everything

No one’s perfect about getting their ass to the gym, but I’ve realized you can keep moving towards your goals at home. Since it’s so important I have toned shoulders, biceps, and pecs so I can continue to easily lift my wheelchair or other heavy items, I use dumbbells to perform bicep curls and triceps presses. (Psst…Check out our 30-Day Dumbbell Challenge with the Tone It Up Girls.) I also make sure to implement rowing dumbbell exercises to help counteract the muscle fatigue that comes from pushing my chair all the time. And since my stomach muscles are impacted by my spinal cord injury, I work on my core every day to maintain my lifestyle and make sure I can sit up straight and balance myself. For an entire episode of The Mindy Project (21 minutes), I’ll sit on a yoga mat with my legs crossed and hold a Pilates ball above my head, slowly rotating my torso so I’m engaging my core. It’s through these at-home workouts that I have more control over my core than I ever thought was possible. I used to fall over sitting on the floor if I didn’t use my hands for balance, and now I can easily sit on the floor and change my niece’s diaper, all while she tries to wiggle away.

Stick to the Buddy System

My (able-bodied) best friend Joanna is my biggest motivation and inspiration for staying in shape. Her encouragement is invaluable. When we first started running together in high school, I was going so slow in the wheelchair that Joanna practically had to walk alongside me, but she’s always been patient. She pushes me when she knows I can do more, but happily learns about my disability and newfound abilities right along with me. Now that we’ve run a 15k and 10k together, I’m starting to catch up with her and have learned how to keep a more consistent pace. It’s fun for us to run together, but it’s also a time for us to talk about our health and fitness goals, and surprisingly we have similar worries. Having even one person as a support system makes the whole process easier and a lot more fun.

By Kristen Parisi


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