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Fitness and Sports

The importance of physical activity and exercise

There are numerous ways to stay active and fit, despite the challenges of living with a spinal cord injury.

by: KMT May, 2021 5 min read

Physical activity and exercise can be especially beneficial for people living with a spinal cord injury (SCI).

Multiple studies have shown that physically active people are less likely to experience feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.

The importance of physical activity and exercise

Besides the risk of chronic health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even some forms of cancer, physical inactivity stemming from a SCI can put you at risk of secondary complications, such as urinary tract infections, pressure sores and respiratory illness. To stay as healthy as possible whilst living with an SCI, experts recommend focusing on the following:

Body weight1

There are many effective strategies for optimising your body weight now that you’re likely to expend less energy than before. Your dietary habits may be altered, and the inability to perform exercises using large muscle groups makes it more of a challenge to avoid accumulating excess fat – all of which results in a high prevalence of obesity in those with an SCI. That’s why a focus on body weight is critical. But don’t be discouraged. Your healthcare team may suggest getting a trainer, who will have a number of solutions to offer. If you need assistance in finding a trainer, a Navigator can help. Most often, trainers will suggest a combination of dietary interventions, aerobic exercise, electrically stimulated resistance training and behavioural counselling.

Muscular strength/endurance1,2

Before starting any strength and/or endurance regime, testing may be performed, in order to establish baseline fitness levels. These include one-repetition maximum (1RM), ten-repetition maximum (10RM) and isometric testing. The results serve as a guide for designing the right exercise training regime for each person. A recent study advocates the benefits of participating in twice-weekly resistance training (three sets of 8-10 repetitions) to improve muscular strength. Some people with an SCI rely heavily on their shoulder and arm muscles for mobility and for performing activities in daily life. Resistance training programmes should be comprehensive, nevertheless ensuring emphasis is placed on improving the strength and endurance of the muscles supporting the scapulae (shoulder blades) and posterior shoulders.2

Flexibility and range of motion2

If you are to decrease the risk of injury and maintain mobility going forward, flexibility and adequate range of motion are essential. Attention should be directed towards stretching the chest, shoulders and biceps, since these are the muscles most often used extensively for mobility and may tighten after an SCI. Lower body stretching should also be included – but be careful not to overstretch limbs where sensation is impaired, since this could lead to excessive stress on joint structures. The specific muscles to be stretched should be based on individual needs and can be identified with the help of a trained clinician.2

Cardio fitness1

Before any fitness programme is undertaken, it is important to make sure that your cardiorespiratory system is up to the challenge. There are numerous tests that can establish a baseline that will indicate the best programme for you. Once these considerations are taken into account, you may participate in and benefit from aerobic exercises that include upper extremity resistance training, wheelchair propulsion, swimming and circuit resistance training, to name a few. Functional electrical stimulation (FES) has proven effective for those with complete paralysis. FES is the application of electrical current to muscles through the use of electrodes attached to the skin. Using FES will create patterned movement in the arms, legs and trunk. This allows the muscles to work and perform activities despite their weakness or paralysis.

NOTE: The information contained in this article is provided as general information only and is not intended to be medical advice. Ask your healthcare professional for more information.


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