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Open Gym

Fitness for people with disabilities


Open Gym

I serve as the first-aid attendant at my place of work, where we help disabled people find employment. The other day I attended a young man with a nosebleed. He was sitting in his wheelchair at the back of the classroom with his head between his knees.

I serve as the first-aid attendant at my place of work, where we help disabled people find employment. The other day I attended a young man with a nosebleed. He was sitting in his wheelchair at the back of the classroom with his head between his knees.

 I sat him up, applied ice, and asked him to pinch his nose.

“That’s hard for me to do,” he said. “I’m quadriplegic.” Quadriplegia is a paralysis from the neck down, usually caused by spinal cord injury.

As I guided the young man’s fingers to the proper pressure point, I noted that he kept himself in good shape for someone confined to a wheelchair. His muscles had healthy tone; prominent, visible veins; and a lack of abdominal fat.

“Are you in a fitness program?” I asked, while checking how much pressure he was exerting to his nose. He told me he had been swimming the evening before, and maybe the bloody nose was a result of the chlorine.

“I work out about five times a week,” he said. “I use weight machines rather than free weights, and I think I hit all the major muscle groups. I use a manual chair. This and swimming lengths help with my cardio.”

“I often wonder how quadriplegics work out,” I said.

“Look,” he replied, as the bleeding stopped, “I broke my neck, but I still have my muscles. If I don’t use them, I’ll lose them—literally. I feel I have both a need and a right to work out.”

Fitness for all abilities
Canada’s Physical Activity Guide, published by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2003, promotes physical activity to prevent chronic disease among all sectors of the population. It recommends that all Canadians exercise 60 minutes daily, in activities ranging from very light (dusting), light (gardening and stretching), and moderate (walking, swimming, and dancing), to vigorous (jogging and aerobics) and maximum effort (sprinting and racing).

Specific guides assist children and youth, adults, and older adults. People with disabilities fall within these groups.

Accessible gyms
Whether or not they learned the importance of fitness as part of their rehabilitation, disabled people need to maintain fitness, and diverse recreational options are available. Persons with disabilities seeking workout opportunities have created new business for both private and public gyms as they install accessible equipment to cater to the fitness needs of new dues-paying members. High-end fitness equipment manufacturers have jumped at the opportunity to supply this market.

Visually impaired people can now use exercise machines equipped with Braille signage. People who are totally blind should have a trainer or buddy on hand to assure safety.

People with spinal cord injuries can use a machine that offers a push-pull action and becomes a cardiovascular workout using arms and shoulders. Wheelchair users can wheel up to a motorized stationary cycling machine and begin cycling and moving the handlebars.

There is even a machine that suspends an exerciser over a treadmill. One or two trainers assist, as 80 percent of the exerciser’s weight is held in a waist harness, giving the exerciser’s legs an opportunity to develop a running gait. These machines are designed to make the person’s limbs go through the motions, and resistance can be applied electronically.

Equal benefits

This equipment helps paraplegic and quadriplegic exercisers experience all the benefits of exercise. These include stronger hearts, more efficient lungs, and general strength. Exercise improves mobility and increases energy level and endurance while reducing stress and fatigue.

People with arthritis use exercise for pain management, increased strength and endurance, and joint mobility and range of motion through stretching and strength training. Cardio exercise helps with weight control and cardiovascular endurance, and the Canadian Arthritis Society hosts special fitness classes.

The best part of exercising is that the disabled person gets to leave the house, meet new people, and benefit from an enjoyable workout.

People with disabilities represent a large segment of the population—one out of every seven Canadians—yet many people don’t think they are interested in reaping the benefits of fitness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both technology and desire are making gyms accessible.

Many disabled people have money available through disability benefits or continued employment, and they’re ready to buy gym memberships. Don’t set limits. Make them feel welcome.

More benefits of working out

  • Better health, posture, and balance better self-esteem
  • Stronger muscles and bones
  • Higher energy
  • better relaxation and reduced stress
  • Longer independent living in later life

Risks of inactivity

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Premature death
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression
  • Colon cancer


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