Particularly in the early days after a spinal cord injury, you might be tempted to languish in bed. Moving around certainly seems counter intuitive when you've suffered a catastrophic injury to your body. But the benefits of exercise don't disappear just because you've been injured. Quite the contrary, in fact.
- Improving mental health by reducing depression and anxiety
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Improving symptoms of chronic pain
- Helping you avoid chronic illnesses such as diabetes and osteoporosis
- Reducing your risk of falls
- Improving your chances of living a longer life
Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise routine, but once you get the go-ahead, consider one or more of these exercises. Remember, the CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, as well as two days spent strength training, and these guidelines apply even to people who have experienced spinal cord injuries.
Yoga is ideal for spinal cord injury survivors because the gentle stretching encourages healthy breathing patterns, and can reduce the pain of spending all or most of your day in a wheelchair. Work at your own pace, focusing on coordinating your movements with your breath, and abandoning any exercises that are painful or that cause you to lose your balance.
You might not be able to safely swim, but water aerobics are an excellent option for spinal cord injury survivors, so long as you have adequate support for your body. The water reduces pain and joint trauma, and can help support your weight even if you've lost a significant portion of your mobility or sensation.
Lifting weights can help you regain significant muscle control. It will also enable you to maintain strength in regions unaffected by your spinal cord injury. Just watch yourself for signs of overuse injuries. Some spinal cord injury survivors end up overworking their upper bodies, creating shoulder and neck problems.
You can still get an incredible aerobic workout from your wheelchair. Focusing on your upper body will help you maintain a healthy posture, but if you're able to move your lower body—even slowly or with assistance—you can steadily work toward more muscle control and strength. Talk to your doctor about seated aerobic classes specifically targeted to spinal cord injury survivors, and ask your physical therapist which exercises are safe for you to do at home.
Rowing is an ideal aerobic activity because it only requires movement in your upper body, but uses your lower body to stabilize your movements, making it an ideal choice for injury survivors with incomplete spinal cord injuries. Keep your back straight, and avoid twisting your torso or overextending yourself. Start with five to 10 reps, steadily working up to a more intense rowing workout.
If your spinal cord injury is incomplete or you have only sustained nerve damage, you may still be able to walk. Maximize your muscle function by walking as frequently as is comfortable, maintaining a steady gait, and an upright posture. If your mobility is impaired, you may still be able to walk in a physical therapy pool, or with the assistance of a physical therapist, so ask your doctor if this is a possibility.