We all know how important physical fitness is for everything from cardio health to muscle strength to weight control.
We’ll dive into those benefits in future articles. But first, let’s lay the groundwork for a safe and effective training program.
Assuming you’ve decided to begin working out, what’s most important to focus on?
Kim Hopkins is a physical therapist and the co-creator of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare’s Exercise for Life Program, a challenging workout to bridge the often-overlooked gap between rehabilitation services and independent healthy living for people with paralysis, spinal cord injury, and other disabilities.
She explains the five most important things to remember for anyone living with paralysis who wants to start a workout program, especially if they’re a beginner.
Talk to a Healthcare Professional
First and foremost, don’t use advice you read online (including in this blog) to start any workout without consulting a qualified health professional first. Otherwise, you’re risking serious injury.
This is especially true for people living with paralysis, each of whom has unique physical needs and limitations that their medical provider must account for when designing a proper workout.
“It is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional, specifically one who has experience working with individuals with paralysis,” Hopkins tells TwP. “They will be able to provide crucial advice throughout the journey of recovery, assess an individual’s condition, and recommend appropriate guidelines based on the individual’s abilities and limitations.”
“It is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional, specifically one who has experience working with individuals with paralysis.”
A healthcare professional also can follow your progress and adjust your program as necessary. For example, your fitness goals might change, or a particular workout might turn out to be too difficult or dangerous for you.
So while it may be tempting to just hit play on a workout video and give it a try, don’t. Talk to your doctor, physical therapist, or someone else who is properly trained and knows your specific physical needs and capabilities.
Understand Your Physical Limits and Set Reasonable Goals
That’s a perfect segue into Hopkins’ next tip, which is to know your own physical limits intimately and use them to set reasonable fitness goals.
Ignoring this step can put you in a world of hurt, both emotionally and physically. “Pushing too hard or attempting exercises beyond an individual’s current capabilities can lead to injuries or setbacks, making it difficult to create a successful and long-term exercise plan,” she says.
A successful plan looks different for everyone, so it’s paramount to keep your specific goals and limitations in mind.
“This will allow for more progress without risk of injury,” Hopkins says. “Working with a healthcare professional to identify exercises that are appropriate for your current abilities and gradually progressing from there is a successful way to start this process.”
Warm Up and Cool Down
Proper warm-up and cool-down periods are also key.
Warm-ups are important for increasing blood flow and preparing your muscles and joints for physical activity, especially if you’ve been mostly sedentary until now or are trying a new workout.
Cool-down exercises help you recover and gradually return your body to a resting state.
“Skipping a warm up or cool down routine can be detrimental to someone’s exercise program and progress towards their goals,” Hopkins says. “By skipping these critical aspects of an exercise routine, it can lead to an increased risk for muscle strain, injury, or other complications.”
Mix It Up and Don’t Overtrain
When starting an exercise program, whether it’s cardio, strength training, or both, remember to push yourself and focus on different muscle groups. If you aren’t challenged, you won’t make any progress.
At the same time, don’t overdo it. Not only will you risk getting injured, but you’ll actually slow your progress.
“Though it is important to challenge yourself and work hard, pushing too hard or overtraining can have the opposite effect than is intended,” Hopkins says. “This can lead to exhaustion, muscle strain, and other injuries.”
She advises people to “listen to your body and gradually increase intensity, duration, amount of exercise, and types of exercise over time. Rest and recovery are also just as important as exercise itself, especially in the beginning.”
Varying your workout plan also helps prevent certain muscles from becoming overworked.
For people who have limited mobility, finding different exercises that are actually possible can be difficult. But it’s crucial.
“Though it is important to challenge yourself and work hard, pushing too hard or overtraining can have the opposite effect than is intended.”
When it comes to equipment, dumbbells are an excellent choice, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced exerciser. Dumbbells are easy to use from a wheelchair, and there are many dumbbell exercises to choose from, even from a seated position.
“Focusing solely on one type of exercise can neglect other aspects of recovery,” Hopkins says. “By incorporating a combination of aerobic exercises, strength training, balance, and flexibility exercises, the exercise program can address all aspects of fitness and enhance an individual’s recovery towards goals.”
Balance and stability exercises are especially important for people living with paralysis because they help lower the risk of falling.
Regardless of the exercises you choose, “Always remember to prioritize safety and listen to your body,” she says. “If you experience any unusual pain, discomfort, or symptoms during exercise, stop immediately and consult with your healthcare professional.”
Adapt and Overcome
Those recovering from spinal cord injuries also need to do what they can to adapt to and overcome their new challenges. This is easier said than done, but it’s critical for both physical and mental health.
“In addition to traditional exercise and wellness throughout the journey of recovery, getting back into life is also crucial,” Hopkins says. “Many people think they may not be able to participate in recreational activities after an injury, but there are so many resources and ways to return to these aspects of life with paralysis as well.”
This includes myriad adaptive sports like cycling, swimming, and wheelchair basketball. For those of us who use crutches, it can also include activities like hiking. If you use a wheelchair, try pushing it uphill or over challenging terrain.
“There are many different types of adaptive equipment and assistive devices, as well as healthcare professionals who can be very creative to help get individuals back to anything they’d like to return to, even if it may look different than before,” she says. “These tools and resources will help facilitate safe and effective workouts as well as help adapt to recreational activities while accommodating any paralysis-related challenges.”
Finally, no matter what sort of workout you start, it’s important to keep going even when you want to quit (and if you’re like most people, including me, you probably will at some point). Being consistent and tracking your training progress are vital for long-term success.
“Skipping workouts or being irregular impedes progress, hinders recovery, and puts an individual more at risk for injury,” Hopkins says. “Tracking progress can make it easier to identify where someone needs to improve, adjust the program, and tell if you’re reaching your goals.”
“Skipping workouts or being irregular impedes progress, hinders recovery, and puts an individual more at risk for injury.”
So if you’re looking to start a fitness program, congratulations! That decision will help you thrive.
Work out at home or the gym. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re seeing results and staying injury-free.
Just keep Hopkins’ tips in mind as you move forward, and take advantage of other resources provided by organizations like the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, SpinalCord.com, and the United Spinal Association. Stay safe, and enjoy the new you. In the meantime, feel free to share in the comments any of your own tips for starting an exercise program that have worked for you. TwP
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to replace advice from a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider before starting any exercise program, as well as about specific medical concerns or treatment.