Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - Benefits & Barriers

Benefits of Being Active

After a Spinal Cord Injury, regular physical activity can have a big impact on improving your quality of life, independence and function. This can then help improve your ability to do day-to-day tasks e.g transferring in and out of the car​. Physical activity gives you more energy and you may feel less tired throughout the day.

Health

Reduced risk of developing health complications such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pressure sores
  • Respiratory illness​

Also helps you manage:

  • Spasticity
  • Weight gain
  • Pain
  • Function
  • Regular physical activity can help improve strength, mobility, fitness and balance​

Social

Physical activity can get you out of the house. You can spend time with your friends or loved ones, or even meet new people. By joining a local sports club or gym, you can socialise with others. 

Mental Health

Activity can help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can lift your mood, and improve your self-esteem. If you find an activity or sport that you enjoy, it can be much more fun.

"Physical activity helps keep me healthy and well - when I’m training regularly everything else seems to run a little bit more smoothly. It helps keep spasticity under control" AC

"I love to engage in physical activity – it makes me feel better about myself in the here and now via endorphins, helps with body image issues and future-proofs my body as I advance in age with an SCI" RO

"Wheelchair Rugby League was great; I felt I had found a way to have fun, increasing my fitness and upper body strength at the same time. This helped with even the most basic things around the house; just transferring into a chair of a different height for example; when newly injured that's a workout! So the fitter and stronger you are the easier daily life becomes" EF

"Physical activity makes me feel happy and content inside. I get a sense of achievement and don't feel lazy and lethargic. When you see results in fitness, tone and weight loss that gives me the same happy feeling" LT

"There is nothing like the feeling of the wind in your hair when out on the hand bike. I have never known a day that I’ve not felt better after a wee ride; it helps my mood no end."

Barriers to Physical Activity

There are some things that can get in the way of being physically active. Here are some tips to help you address some issues you may come across

"I find exercise boring" - If you haven't found something you like, exercise can be boring! Try out different types of activities to find something you enjoy. Or make it more interesting by teaming up with a friend or family member. If you can find something you enjoy, you will be more likely to stick with it

"I don't have any equipment" - That's ok! You don't need special equipment to be active. If you are doing strength work, you can use your body weight. If you would like weights, you can use tins from the kitchen cupboard, or Filled water bottles. If you want resistance bands, you can use an old pair of tights. There are lots of great workouts online that do not require any specilist equipment.

"Getting ready takes ages now, I don't have the time for extra activity" - To begin with getting ready in the morning may feel like a workout, but the more extra activity you can squeeze in, the easier this will become, giving you more time to do the things you enjoy. Planning out your day or week can help with this. To start out, find ways of incorporating more activity into your daily routine, e.g: Walking or wheeling to a bus stop that is further away from your home. Parking further away from the supermarket entrance. Taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator

"I can't afford my local gym, and I don't know if it is accessible to me" - There are schemes in place to offer free or discounted memberships to gym users with a disability. Unfortunately, accessibility issues are common. 'Euan's Guide' is a website that includes disabled access reviews, from gyms to holiday homes! If you are still unsure about your gym, give them a call. Remember, there are other ways to keep fit and active: Outside, at home, without equipment.

Helpful Tips

From Transport to Toilets - To make it easier to get out and about, the Accessible Travel Hub has lots of great information about finding an accessible toilet, blue badge parking, and accessible transport. 

Wheelchair Skills App - In February 2021, 'Back-Up' (Spinal Cord Injury Charity) launched a Wheelchair Skills App. This includes videos showing staff and volunteers demonstrating key skills needed to get around using your wheelchair. 

Overcoming barriers from a person with a SCI

"When leaving the unit and going home I was certainly full of good intentions to keep up with my workouts or keep as active as I could, but once home and dealing with that transition of going from the comfort and ease of the spinal unit with accessible equipment, nurses to hand, flat surfaces to manoeuvre on etc, it was all too much and I stopped having that enthusiasm

My mental health took over my physical and it was hard to get out of that funk for a long time. After a while, a long while, I soon got fed up with myself if I’m being honest. Something just clicked and I wanted to be more independent and not rely on others, or have to wait until someone could come with me, even if just transferring into a car and going to the shops. Family and friends were a massive influence and motivation. Once I had more confidence in myself and went to the gym, I’d go to the shopping centres myself and push for longer and in turn that helped both my physical and mental wellbeing" LT​​

Adaptive Equipment and Funding

Adaptive Equipment - You may need adaptive equipment like grip support to assist you with physical activity. Active hands sell a variety of adaptive equipment​.

Specialist Sport Wheelchairs - The University of Loughborough have created a document to help with selecting the most suitable sporting wheelchair for you. 

Funding - If you are aged 16-25 years old in Scotland, you could be eligible for funding to try new activities and experiences. 

Fundraising - 'Aspire' the spinal injury charity, support people by raising money through crowdfunding. This can help you purchase equipment or access services. 

Aspiring Paralympian?

If you're looking to take your training to the next level then Scottish Disability Sport is a great place to start. They have a fact file on each sport, which includes information about the sport, how the classification system works, and contact details of coaches, and the sports governing body. They also have an Athlete Academy to support you on your journey to the World stage. Read more on Disability Classification.

SCI Organisations

Whilst in hospital you will have met some inspiring members of the SCI community, such as peer mentors from different charities​. Click the titles below to find out more about each organisation and what they can offer:​

Safety Tips

This section includes safety tips about being active with a SCI

Look after your shoulders

Your shoulders are at greater risk of 'overuse' injuries​. Tips:​

  1. Overuse injuries are more common when you repeat the same movement over a long period of time. Avoid doing the same activity every day, mix it up​.
  2. Building up slowly and gradually will make sure your body has time to adapt to your activities. You should feel a bit of muscle soreness but not pain​.
  3. Make sure you have at least one rest day a week​.
  4. Technique is key! Using a mirror can help you adjust your position to improve your technique. Check workout videos or pictures, look to see how the instructor exercises, are you: In the same position? Well supported?​​

Autonomic Dysreflexia

If you have a SCI at or above T6 it is important to be aware of 'Autonomic Dysreflexia' (AD) This is a sudden increase in blood pressure and altered heart rate. Signs:

  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Sweating
  • Hot Flashes
  • Goosebumps
  • Anxiety

Causes:

  • Tight clothing
  • Full bladder
  • A kink in the urinary catheter
  • Faecal impaction
  • Pressure sores
  • Ingrown toenail

How to prevent AD:

  • Wear loose clothing
  • Do not tie your shoe laces too tight
  • Empty your bladder and bowels before activity

If you experience AD:

  • Sit upright
  • Try to identify the cause
  • Loosen or remove restrictive clothing​

This should resolve as soon as the stimulus/cause is removed​. If your symptoms do not go away, go to A&E.

Complications to Avoid

In the video below Shannon Sproule, a Physiotherapist from Canada discusses the risks to be aware of during exercise after a SCI, and provides tips on how to avoid complications. This video was made by SCIRE The Spinal Cord Injury Research Evidence group in Canada​

Other videos from SCIRE:

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the physical activity guidelines for?

The guidelines are recommended to: Adults with a SCI (Injury levels up to C3) Aged 18 - 64 years old. Injured for more than one year. But they may also be suitable for people aged 65+ or people who have been injured for less than a year. If this applies to you, please speak to your healthcare team for advice​

Can I do more than the exercise guidelines?

The starting goal and progress goal are the minimum amount of activity to gain fitness and health benefits. So yes, if you feel able, do more! Build up to this gradually​

Is physical activity safe after a SCI?

The physical activity guidelines are based on scientific evidence which suggests that activity is safe after a SCI. However, there are risks - check out the safety tips on this page. 

Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - PART 2 

Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - PART 1 

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