The Importance of Fitness Following a Spinal Cord Injury

spinal cord injury recoveryMaintaining a good level of health and fitness is important for every individual, but for those who have sustained a spinal cord injury, keeping active is perhaps even more vital.

Exercise can help to reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, improve the symptoms of chronic pain, help to reduce the risk of developing diabetes or osteoporosis and improve strength and endurance.

Furthermore, exercise can also lower the risk of developing secondary complications associated with spinal cord injuries, such as urinary tract infections, pressure sores and respiratory illnesses. A healthy diet can also help to reduce the risk of developing these secondary medical complications. Combining exercise with a specialised diet is of course the best approach to take.


There are a variety of sports and activities that can be pursued by individuals with a spinal cord injury to help maintain a good level of fitness.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise can improve cardiorespiratory fitness and help to increase muscle tone in adults who have suffered from a spinal cord injury. It can also help to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and improve the immune system.

Physical activity also continues to be the most effective way to combat coronary heart disease, as well as the function and health of the lungs.

Wheelchair users should not feel that a lack of mobility precludes them from being able to undertake aerobic exercise. Specially adapted equipment, as well as classes and routines designed specifically for wheelchair users are often available.

The National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine recommends that adults with a spinal cord injury should undertake 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise two times per week.

wheelchair racing

If you suffer from poor health in general, even a gentle aerobic workout can help to increase heart and breathing rates, bringing more oxygen to your muscles and boosting mood, energy and circulation.

Good examples of aerobic exercise for individuals with a spinal cord injury include:

  • Wheelchair pushing
  • Seated aerobics
  • Arm ergometer
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Baskteball
  • Boxing or overhead punching

Strength-Based Training

Gym sessions and weight training sessions are vitally important for individuals looking to increase muscle tone and gain strength. Strong muscles are necessary for all types of daily movement, as well as helping to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure and to maintain a healthy weight. All of these core elements are incredibly important for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

kettle bells

Effective weight training workouts are based upon repetition of specific activities, using weights or other equipment, that are designed to build and strengthen various muscle groups.

For wheelchair users, strength based training is extremely beneficial for many of the physical regions unaffected by injury.  The key to effective strength training is to be able to work the muscle groups enough to see an increase in strength, without overusing them.


Good examples of strength-based training for wheelchair users could include:

  • Free weights
  • Kettle bells
  • Bands / elastics
  • Wall weights
  • Adapted exercise machines

Flexibility Training

Keeping your body as flexible and supple as possible can help to ease pain and encourage healthy breathing patterns. Stretching exercises, yoga and Pilates can help with posture and balance.

Yoga is ideal for those with a spinal cord injury as the stretching encourages gentle movement and can help to reduce the pain of caused by spending a significant amount of time in a wheelchair. Individuals should always work at their own pace and learn to focus on coordinating movements and breathing. Any yoga positions that are painful or cause a loss of balance should be abandoned to prevent injury.


Upper body stretching exercises can help to relieve tension in the shoulders, upper arms and neck, whilst activities focusing on the lower body like the hips, knees and ankles can help to increase passive range of motion.

Respiratory Endurance and Strengthening

If a spinal cord injury has resulted in weakened respiratory muscles, it may be worthwhile to consider performing respiratory exercises that help with breathing.

These could include:

  • Taking a deep breath and holding it for a few seconds before slowly breathing out
  • Taking a deep breath, bringing in as much air as possible and as fast possible before breathing out
  • Taking a deep breath and holding it, taking another breath and holding it, and then taking one more before slowly breathing out.

However it’s important to always consult with a medical professional before undertaking respiratory endurance exercises.

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