Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. It's goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

The Benefits of Exercise after Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury (SCI)—damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal—often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury. The effects of an injury like this can be devastating for patients and their families. But exercise and physical activity can be particularly beneficial for SCI patients. Here’s why:

Physical activity is important for all of us. Exercise reduces the risk of developing chronic health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even some forms of cancer. For people with a spinal cord injury, there can be added health benefits.

More physically active individuals with SCI have a lower risk of developing secondary complications such as urinary tract infections, pressure sores and respiratory illness. Physical activity can also help you better manage problems such as spasticity, weight gain and chronic pain. It can help improve your strength and endurance, which in turn can improve your ability to accomplish everyday tasks such as transferring and pushing a manual wheelchair. Plus, multiple research studies have shown that people who are physically active are less likely to experience feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.

Adjusting to life after a spinal cord injury is difficult. Exercise not only contributes to continuing rehabilitation but also to a healthy lifestyle. Attending a fitness center or taking part in a sport or recreational activity provides an opportunity to meet other people who have shared interests, have fun and provide a real sense of accomplishment. The psychological aspect of exercise can be a great motivational tool for everyone and can go a long way in improving overall quality of life.

Exercise for individuals with a spinal cord injury can be divided into three broad categories:

  •  Aerobic exercise to maintain cardiovascular health
  •  Strength-based training to maintain the ability to perform activities of daily living and mobility, as well as preventing injury from muscle weakness or imbalance
  •  Flexibility training to improve range of motion and reduce spasticity.

Currently, exercise is the only known intervention that can have lasting effects on function after a spinal cord injury, both in promoting neural recovery and in reducing secondary complications. There is no “magic pill” that can replace all the benefits of exercise.

At Burke, after the intense physical, occupational, speech and other rehabilitative therapy has concluded, there are exercise programs available to join as a member of our Smart Fitness Center. These are:

  • The Burke Fitness Challenge
  • The Burke Independent FES Cycling Program

The Burke Fitness Challenge provides an individualized exercise program using equipment in the Outpatient Physical Therapy Department. It is meant for community members or former patients who are wheelchair bound and/or have neurological impairments, such as with SCI. Overseen by a physical therapist with the help of other health professionals, the Burke Fitness Challenge helps participants maintain or improve their cardiovascular stamina and health, as well as muscle strength and flexibility.

The Burke Independent FES Cycling Program also takes place in the Outpatient PT department. This program, again overseen by a physical therapist, provides former patients or eligible community members with neurological injuries the opportunity to use our state-of-the-art FES cycles to improve both leg and arm strength, and stamina. Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) makes use of electrical impulses that are sent via surface electrodes to peripheral nerves of respected muscles in order to stimulate them. Using this stimulation, muscles paralyzed or severely weakened by SCI can be stimulated to contract to help pedal a bicycle. As strength improves, resistance and duration of rides can increase. Ride data analytics are recorded every time and stored wirelessly, for accurate record keeping, and objective data retrieval. Burke’s Physical Therapist and other trained instructors can help with progressions. According to a study published in the National Institute of Health in 2009, the benefits to an FES riding program, in addition to the strength and cardiovascular improvements, also can improve bone mineral density, and reduce levels of depression.

Both classes run all year, and meet every Monday through Thursday from 4:45-6:45 pm, and Saturdays from 10-3 pm in the Outpatient Physical Therapy gym area.

If you have any questions about either of these programs, please don’t hesitate to call us here in the Outpatient PT department at 914-597-2122.

And don’t forget to check out our adaptive sports clinics and year round events through Burke’s Therapeutic Recreation department, including adaptive water skiing, hand cycling, yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, adaptive climbing, table tennis and more. There is plenty at Burke to keep people with spinal cord injuries active and healthy for the rest of their lives.

—Ben Gilbert, PT, MS, OCS, Cert. MDT, Manager, Outpatient Physical Therapy Department at Burke Rehabilitation Center 

Learn more about Burke's New York Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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