Exercising with a Spinal Cord Injury

Written by: John McLeish

The positive influence that regular exercise has on wellbeing and quality of life is not just limited to the able-bodied. There is good news for individuals with spinal cord injuries, too: research has shown that physical activity can have dramatic effects on the recovery process. In fact, according to the Spinal Cord Injury Network, fitness is the only known intervention that can have lasting effects on function after a spinal cord injury.

Living an active lifestyle can help alleviate some of the challenges that come with sustaining a serious injury. Exercise reduces the risk of developing secondary complications, including urinary tract infections, pressure sores and respiratory illness. It also helps manage chronic pain. Improving strength and endurance through exercise can make everyday activities, such as pushing a wheelchair and getting in and out of a chair, less of a challenge.

Exercise is also essential in maintaining mental health. Studies suggest that people who participate in regular physical activity are less likely to experience anxiety, loneliness and depression.

Aerobics, resistance training or both?

Two types of exercise are beneficial to those who have suffered a spinal cord injury. The first is aerobic. Also known as cardio exercise, these workouts can include wheeling, cycling and swimming, and are great for building endurance. Aerobic exercise stimulates heart and breathing rate and can be sustained over a period of time. It requires the pumping of oxygenated blood by the heart to deliver oxygen to working muscles.

The other type of exercise to consider is resistance training. These workouts can consist of free weights, resistance bands, cable pulleys and weight-training machines, and are helpful in developing muscle strength. Resistance training helps maintain bone health and muscle mass, which are important to consider when recovering from a spinal cord injury. This type of exercise also lends itself to weight maintenance, because the body continues to burn calories even after completing a workout. This helps boost metabolism and keep the weight off.

What is “FES” and how does it work?

Exercise has an effect on neuroplasticity, which is the ability the nerve has to change and regrow after it has been damaged. It can therefore help in neural recovery after an injury. One type of exercise, called Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), produces contractions of paralyzed muscles using electrical impulses, subsequently causing movement in the limbs. FES cycling has recently gained popularity because of the undeniable benefits it has to patients with spinal cord injuries. FES is helpful in increasing muscle mass, improving bone, joint and cardiovascular health, increasing blood flow and reducing pressure sores.

A tremendous resource for Canadians

For more details about exercising with a spinal cord injury, check out Get in Motion, by SCI Action Canada, offers a wealth of free resources, including a toolkit and physical-exercise counselling over the phone. The website also has valuable physical activity guidelines for adults with spinal-cord injuries.

John McLeish


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