Exercising with a Spinal Cord Injury

Your health and fitness goals, diet and exercise regime may change after a spinal cord injury – but with time, patience and the right approach, you can find new ways of staying strong and healthy.

Why Exercise After SCI?

Some people may find wellbeing and exercise after a spinal cord injury becomes even more important to your body than pre-injury. Your body goes through changes at every stage in life and your SCI needs may change at these different stages, too.

Taking care of yourself is the key to everything from fitness to self-esteem, even your ability to help others. Exercise can improve your breathing, your immune system and your sleep – and lower the risk of common secondary conditions to SCI, like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

Paralysis isn’t the same for everyone. Mobility will vary from injury to injury and no two injuries are the same; they’re just as unique as the individuals who sustain them. Even if you have limited mobility, any exercise at all is better than none.

There are exercises for almost every injury level and completeness. Some exercises will be suitable for many injury levels, including complete and incomplete injuries – but it’s important to work with your body and get creative, without pushing yourself too hard at first.

With that in mind, the first stage is to set goals and to plan exercises that will meet them.

Goals, Guidelines and Frequency

Your goals can be anything: to lift a certain weight, to compete in a race or to get to a target clothing size. Whatever your goals are, it’s important to recognise any barriers you may face, so you can prepare workarounds and creative ways of solving problems. For instance, if you have a higher-level injury and reduced grip strength, you may want to source additional tools to aid your workouts – like grip gloves.

What should you include in your exercise programme? Experts always encourage you to refer to your goals first.  So if you want to build strength, you’ll need weight training and muscle conditioning. To lose weight, you’ll need to engage in aerobic (or cardio) exercises. Both in combination will help maintain weight and build strength – but whichever approach you take, you must account for stretches, warm up and cool down time.

Stretching muscles, even those you no longer use, is vitally important after you sustain a SCI. Stiffness in even isolated muscle groups can impact your range of mobility, so make sure you stretch all areas of your body regularly.

Experts generally say you should build up your exercise routines slowly. If you’re new to exercise, don’t start your first day with a heavy dose of cardio followed by weights – just take it slow and challenge yourself incrementally.

To date there isn’t much guidance on how much exercise someone with a spinal cord injury should undertake – but as a guide, health professionals recommend the following for those in the general population:

  1. 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio every week, with added strength training twice per week. Strength training should focus on all possible major muscle groups.
  2. 75 minutes of high-intensity cardio every week and strength training twice per week, working all possible major muscle groups.
  3. An equal mix of moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercise, with strength training, at least twice per week.

People with a spinal cord injury may find it hard to meet these guidelines. If this is the case, then exercise regularly based on your abilities – because any amount of exercise is better than none. For additional guidance, speak to your doctor or a specialist personal trainer.

Exercises to Try

There’s a massive wealth of exercises to try for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility – some of the best are free on YouTube, and most are easy to follow at home. Some may require additional equipment like resistance bands, weights or grip gloves, but there’s plenty you can do with no equipment at all.

Some of the exercises I have discovered recently and enjoy are listed below:

WheelPower and Ella Beaumont (who is a GB Wheelchair Basketball Under 25 Women’s European Championships silver medallist), have come together to make workouts more accessible for people with a SCI during lockdown. They’ve created a brilliant set of home workouts using household items such as brooms, tinned food and even old tights!

Ben Clark of Adapt to Perform has been producing workout videos since before lockdown. His videos are particularly useful for those who are tetraplegic and lack either grip or trunk control to steady themselves. Ben is a huge fan of resistance bands – and is keen for exercises which use muscles in a different way to how we naturally propel ourselves in wheelchairs, or undertake transfers. This is to ensure we don’t wear out our upper body, whilst at the same providing us with a workout.

For those of you wanting some high level cardio workouts, there’s a live online CardioBox with Jon through Airbnb experiences. Jon adapts his classes to all abilities – whether you’re standing or sitting, have trunk control or whether you have reduced power in your upper limbs. The workout is intense, but you don’t have to have prior experience and it’s tailored specifically to you.

Lastly, there are fun activities on YouTube and Instagram such as Wheelchair Zumba or wheelchair dance routines. My current favourite is Sit Down AJ – he has several video routines which either are adapted for sitting down or use dancers who are wheelchair users. Lots of fun and great to do online with friends at the same time!

However you approach exercise, start slow and remember: even a little can go a long way, so no matter what, do your best to get active!

Tune into Adapt to Perform’s Podcast

On Friday 12th June, I’ll be joining Ben Clark on the ATP Show. Ben runs Adapt to Perform, the YouTube Channel dedicated to adapting fitness programs and nutrition for people with disabilities.

It is free to listen and Ben and I will be discussing spinal cord injury, fitness and lifestyle – as well as life post-injury.

Talk to Aspire Law

Raquel Siganporia is a Senior Solicitor and Director of Business Development at Aspire Law. If you or a loved one feel you may have suffered a spinal injury as a result of an accident or someone else’s negligence, or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact Raquel free of charge and in confidence on 0800 030 20 40 or at Raquel.Siganporia@aspirelaw.co.uk. Alternatively, complete this form and one of our Spinal Injury specialists will contact you.