Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - Getting Started

Let's get started!

The guidelines tell us what we should aim for, but how do we actually do this?​ This article will explain what aerobic and strength activity is, and will give you some tips as to how to achieve 'moderate to vigorous' intensity.

Aerobic Activity

What is aerobic activity? Aerobic activity is the continuous movement of the body. Depending on your level of injury, it may increase your heart rate, breathing and make you a bit warm and sweaty.

Types of aerobic activity:

  • Everyday activities such as housework, playing with your children, walking the dog, and gardening
  • Walking or wheeling at the park, or commuting to work
  • Sport such as badminton, cycling, and rugby
  • Gym classes like body pump or home workouts online

Understanding Intensity

You may have used the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale at your spinal unit. It is a scale from 6 (no exertion at all) to 20 (maximal exertion) The image below uses the scale to explain how moderate intensity and vigorous intensity may feel, and the types of activity that each intensity may correspond to. Click on the image to download the Intensity Poster (.pdf)

Strength Activity

What is strength activity? Strength activities involve using your body weight, resistance bands or weights to increase strength.

Types of strength activity: 

  • Everyday activities such as carrying your shopping, or digging in the garden
  • Strengthening classes like yoga or pilates
  • Traditional strength training such as squats, calf raises, chest press, bicep curl etc

Resources: WheelPower has lots of strength workout videos:

A Canadian research team has created strength-training guides - 'Strength-training guide for people with paraplegia'. Click HERE

"I don’t attend the gym anymore. I enjoyed it when there but it was always so busy and I did feel self-conscious at times. I’ve noticed over the last year of this pandemic that my previous 20+ transfers a day, going back and forward to work and everything in between with household chores that, that is my activity that has kept me fit and toned. It’s been less activity this year and its showed in my upper limbs so I’m looking forward to getting back to regular everyday activities to increase my fitness levels again." LT

"As a new wheelchair user you soon realise that a 'flat' road is anything but! The camber, rough tarmac, lack of kerb cuts etc all make just the equivalent of 'going for a walk' really tough, especially when your arms feel like wee chicken wings!" EF

Physical Activity

There are lots of great resources to help you become more physically active. 


WheelPower is the national charity for wheelchair sport. They regularly post exercise videos on their website and YouTube. Including aerobic and strength workouts, with and without equipment. At the moment, they are even offering a free set of resistance bands!


Parasport powered by Toyota is the new way to discover inclusive local opportunities to become more active. Theirr ambition is to create the UK’s biggest fun and vibrant community for players, parents and coaches to share their experiences of para sport, and find useful hints, tips and information on what’s happening near you.

Scottish Disability Sport (SDS)

SDS regularly update their website with news and events specific to each region of Scotland. From Para Sport Festivals to Disability Inclusion Training, Boccia Championships to Awards Nights, there is something for everyone. 

Charlotte's Tandems

They lend tandems and tag-alongs to people with disabilities, who are unable to ride a bike safely on their own. Link

Visiting the Gym?

If the gym is what you are looking for, then here are some tips.

After a SCI you may be entitled to discounted or free gym/leisure centre membership. Ways to apply to these are linked below:

Before your first visit to the gym, you may want to contact them to find out about their facilities. See the checklist below for some ideas (Click on the image to download the poster)

Water Based Activity

If you are looking to get back in the water, or want to give it a try, here are some tips and advice to find out more about Water Based Activity with a SCI​ (Click on the image below to download the poster).

Find Your Local Pool

"I joined a local gym after doing a tour and speaking to management about my access needs. They were all very helpful and bent over backwards to ensure I got the support I needed. I have always enjoyed the gym and it’s been part of my life for a long time. Getting back to it was a big step towards life feeling more normal after my discharge from hospital." AC

"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

"I have always been a fan of the 'traditional' modes of exercise like the gym and swimming, so I continue to do these post injury, albeit slightly adapted from before with a few extra considerations." RO

Still looking for more info?

The University of Loughborough has created two leaflets about keeping active after a SCI. These are titled 'Fit for Life' and 'Fit for Sport'. 

Goal Setting​

Whether you want to get back to what you did before your SCI, or you want to give yourself new goals and challenges, having something to aim for can be a big help​. You know your body better than anyone else, challenge yourself but make sure this is realistic. Choosing an activity that you enjoy will help you stick to your goal. There are lots of ways you can be physically active. Here is how you can put your ideas into action...

Putting Goals into Action

By setting a goal and planning how you will achieve this, you are more likely to reach your goal​.

1. Ask yourself, what is my physical activity goal? e.g Swim for 15mins, twice a week.

2. Create a plan to achieve this goal: See examples of weekly plans below. Use this template to fill in a weekly schedule for each day of planned physical activity. (Click on the image to download the template .pdf)

3. Ask yourself the following questions...

  •   What type of activity?
  •     When will I do this activity?
  •     How long will the activity last?
  •     Where will I do this?
  •     What intensity will I aim for?

4. Think about what you might need for each session: e.g The night before lay out your workout clothes or any equipment you might need​

5. After each activity, write down what you actually did. Think about how you might progress this for the next time, or next week ​

Have a look at the example schedules below, they show someone who is starting out and someone who is already active:

"I have been using goal planning throughout my inpatient stay and on into the community. It’s been hugely beneficial for me." RO

"Take it slowly. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your strength and fitness are no different! So don’t be daunted by the challenge ahead. Take it in wee chunks and do what you can." EF

Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - PART 1 

Physical Activity after a Spinal Cord Injury - PART 3

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