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Fitness Guidelines Following a Spinal Cord Injury

John M Oct 24, 2019
There are many reasons why staying physically active following a spinal cord injury is important, including preventing the risk of additional medical complications post injury.
We all know the importance of staying active and maintaining a balanced diet in order to lead a healthy life and there are many guidelines out there provided by health professionals which suggest the recommended minimum amount of exercise we should all be doing each week.
However, it’s not always easy to keep in line with these guidelines. Many people lead fast-paced, busy lives and often find little time to exercise the recommended amount each week.

There may be other challenges in life which prevent someone from exercising as much as they perhaps should.
It can be possible to maintain a good level of cardiovascular health just by performing regular day-to-day activities.

Walking to the shop each day, instead of driving, is one way that this can be achieved.
For individuals who have sustained a spinal cord injury, staying physically active is equally, if not more, important.

But if they require the use of a wheelchair, it’s likely that they will lead a more sedentary lifestyle compared with how active they were prior to their injury.

Health Issues Following a Spinal Cord Injury

Individuals with spinal cord injuries are at a higher risk of numerous health problems as a result of their injury, such as heart disease, high cholesterol and weight gain.

Being physically active is one way to minimise the risk of these health issues.
Being less mobile as a result of a spinal cord injury will no doubt present some challenges when it comes to staying active, but there are many different exercises that can be considered.

The severity and level of injury will determine which activities can be performed and professional advice should always be sought before beginning an exercise regimen.

Benefits of Exercise Following a Spinal Cord Injury

There are numerous benefits from partaking in regular physical activities following a spinal cord injury.
These include:
  • Maintaining a health blood sugar level
  • Improved mood
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved flexibility
  • Better quality sleep
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Lowered cholesterol

Spinal Cord Injury Exercises Guidelines

Research suggests that people with a spinal cord injury should partake in a minimum of 20 minutes moderate to vigorous aerobic exercises twice per week. Additionally, it’s recommended that twice per week, they also engage in 3 sets of strength exercises at a moderate to vigorous intensity.

These exercises should focus on each major functioning muscle group.

Types of Exercise

An exercise plan should not focus only on aerobic activities or strength training.

It’s important to combine the two and also to engage in regular stretching exercises to improve flexibility and minimize the risk of injury.

Aerobic Exercises

To maintain a good level of cardiovascular health, regular aerobic activity should be undertaken. Those who require the use of a wheelchair may be unable to walk, run or cycle, but there are a number of other ways to get an effective aerobic workout with reduced mobility.
Hand cycling, rowing, swimming and even using a wheelchair with greater intensity can all be great ways to maintain cardiovascular health following a spinal cord injury.

Participating in sports such as wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis are also great options that can be considered.

Strength Training

Individuals who have sustained a serious spinal cord injury will usually find they have lost control of certain muscle groups within their body. Therefore, it’s important for them to maintain strength in the muscle groups for which they still have control of.

This can be achieved by strength training.
Weightlifting, using resistance bands and yoga are three great examples of strength training activities that can help maintain and improve muscle strength following a spinal cord injury.


It’s important to stretch regularly to prevent injury when exercising and also prevent stiff joints and muscles.

Once again, the individual should try and stretch all the muscle groups they still have control of. Stretching exercises can be done alone or with the help of a trainer, friend or family member.
As mentioned earlier, Yoga can help to increase muscle strength, but it is also a great activity when it comes to stretching and improving flexibility.

Some other stretching exercises can be performed using a standing frame or with exercise bands.

Getting Started

Knowing where to start when it comes to fitness following a spinal cord injury can be a daunting prospect. A lot will depend on the location and severity of the injury and how mobile the individual is.

But in many cases there are numerous options that can be considered, regardless of the individual’s level of mobility.
It’s important to get advice from a healthcare professional before embarking on a fitness routine following a spinal cord injury.

They can help assess the situation and suggest the most suitable exercise to be considered in each case.