Exercise and strength training are good for everyone, regardless of disability, but they are especially important for those with spinal cord injury (SCI) or other forms of paralysis. However, the barriers that those with paralysis often face could make it easy to become discouraged or even prevented from exercising. Despite these challenges, exercise and strength training are possible and can improve quality of life. Before someone with SCI or paralysis begins a new exercise regimen, they should always consult a health care professional.

Different Types of Exercise

Every exercise program should consist of three different types of exercises: stretching, aerobic exercise, and strength training. Stretching before and after exercising not only helps prevent injury, but also improves flexibility, joints, and blood flow. Aerobic exercises, also known as cardiovascular exercises, improve heart health and circulation by increasing heart rate and blood flow. Lastly, strength training increases muscle mass, strength, and endurance through resistance exercises using tools such as free weights, resistance bands, strength machines, and even your own body weight.

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Exercise Benefits for Those with Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI)

Knowing the benefits of an exercise program is a great way to help those with paralysis stay motivated. Some of those benefits include increased strength and higher energy levels to help get the most out of life. Exercise improves breathing and blood flow which can be very beneficial to those living with spinal cord injuries (SCI). However, some of the best benefits of exercise are psychological in nature. Feel-good hormones that are released reduce anxiety and depression and even increase self-esteem and self-confidence.

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A Complete Workout for Those with Paralysis

The following eight exercises can help increase blood circulation and strength by providing a complete workout for those with spinal cord injuries (SCI). Remember, it is important to sit tall and engage the core during the workout. Maintaining good posture not only ensures maximum effectiveness but can also prevent injury.

1. Breathing Exercises

From a chair or wheelchair, sit up as tall and as straight as you can, supporting yourself with your own core. While engaging your abdominal muscles, relax your shoulders, and lengthen your torso. Next, set your intention for exercise by trying one of three hand positions. 1) Place your hands on your legs in front of you with palms facing up (as though you are receiving), 2) Your hands are in the same position only with palms facing downward (if you need grounding), and 3) Put your hands together in front of your heart in a praying position. Next, close your eyes and take a long deep breath, counting to four as you do this, then exhaling slowly to a four count. Repeat this, three more times.

2. Warm-Up Stretches

Open your eyes and reach your hands above your head. Spread your fingers, reach high toward the ceiling, and continue to inhale deeply. Now, with your hands still over your head, bend softly to the left to stretch your sides for a four count, then do the same to the right. Next, bring your arms down, turn to your left, and with both hands, grab the back of your chair while you slowly turn your head to the right as you count to four. Repeat this for the opposite side. Finally, take your hands and reach straight forward, making a breaststroke swimming motion for eight counts. You can lean forward but do not lower your head below your heart as this might make you feel dizzy.

3. Biceps & Triceps Exercises

Biceps and triceps can be exercised in many ways. You can use dumbbells, a HUR easy access Bicep/Tricep machine, or a Pulley. When using dumbbells, make sure the arms of your chair are lowered so that you have room to rest your arms down at your side. With dumbbells in hand, slowly bend your elbows and curl the weights up at a count of 2 then back down for a 2 count. Repeat 10-12 times. Now, hold the weights straight out in front of you at shoulder height, palms up with elbows facing the floor, and curl up and down slowly with the same slow 2 count 10-12 times. For the final round, sit up tall and hold dumbbells over your head. Keeping the elbows high, bend and lower dumbbells behind your head to engage your triceps with the same counts as the bicep exercises.

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4. Shoulder Exercises

Shoulders can also be worked with dumbbells, using a machine such as the HUR easy access Pushup/Pulldown machine, or even a Pulley. Using light dumbbells, relax your shoulders and make an upward “goal post” with your arms with elbows out to the side at 90° angles. Hands are up with dumbbells facing forward. Rotate the dumbbells down and back up, then move elbows in toward one another then back out. Repeat 10-12 times. Next, with arms in the same “goal post” position, push the dumbbells up to the ceiling then together in the shape of an A, then back to the “goal post” position 10-12 times. For the final round, your arms are straight down at your sides. Keeping your arms straight, slowly raise the dumbbells out to the sides to shoulder height, then return to the original position 10-12 times (bend your arms to modify if needed).

5. Back Exercises

Back exercises such as high, middle, or low or rows, can be done from a wheelchair using dumbbells or machines such as the HUR Pulley. If using dumbbells, lean slightly forward in your chair, then lower and extend your dumbbells downward slightly outside of the sides of your knees. Bending your elbows, pull the dumbbells back toward your chest as you engage your back muscles. Repeat 10-12 times. You can do both hands at the same time or one then the other. When bending over, be sure not to go lower than your heart or you may feel dizzy.

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6. Chest Exercises

Chest exercises can be done using machines, such as the HUR easy access Chest Press, but can also be done using a medicine ball with a friend. Toss the ball straight out in front of you to your partner using your chest muscles. Try tossing up high or off to the sides as well for variation. Ramping up the intensity will get your heart rate going. Use time as your unit of measure and try to keep going for 1 minute before a short rest and repeat.

7. Core Exercises

Scoot forward in your chair, sit up tall, and engage your core. Cross your arms in front of your chest and do seated sit-ups by first leaning back then bending forward, while still maintaining safety and stability. Repeat 10-12 times. Next, place your hands behind your head with your elbows pointed out and lean forward, crossing your elbow to its opposite knee then sitting back up. Alternate both sides 10-12 times each. You can also try having a friend stand to your side holding one end of a resistance band, while you sit up tall and engage your core with your arms straight out in front of you holding the other end of the band. As your partner applies tension, keep your shoulders and arms facing forward, holding for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.

8. Cool Down – Chair Sun Salutation

For the cool down, hold your hands together in front of your heart (praying position). Take a deep breath as you lift them straight up over your head. Then slowly exhale as you open your arms wide and bring them down toward your sides as you lean forward (again, not too far). As you return to the upright position, bring your hands back together in front of your heart. Repeat this 2-3 times slowly.

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