Have you been keeping your resolutions this year? Statistics show we're mostly likely to have “get fit”, “lose weight” or “adopt a regular exercise routine” towards the top of our list! The spike in gym memberships in January seems to prove this idea. I frequently get asked, “How do you stay in shape?” Perhaps it may seem to some people that because I use a wheelchair, I am limited physically and will therefore dismiss it altogether. But I am still one of those that puts “getting more exercise” at the top of my resolution list and I only see the wheelchair as an opportunity to get more creative with exercise, not an excuse to forgo it!
A whole new (paralyzed) world.
Physical fitness was one of those things I naturally loved to do growing up even before getting paralyzed. I'll admit, it's probably something I took for granted as I never thought I'd encounter any physical limitation to hinder me from such. So when I found myself paralyzed suddenly at the height of my swimming days, one of the major fears I had was that I'd have no way of being truly active to that extent again. (My regular routine consisted of swim practices and going for endurance runs around my neighborhood.) Looking back, I think most of my unsubstantiated fear came from not being privy to an already existing world where all the sports and activities I could think of are available for those with physical challenges. Thinking even deeper, I was also scared I'd never feel satisfied doing physical exercise again if it didn't feel the exact same way it did before, leaving me to feel “disabled”.
Wait, so now what?!
Luckily the spinal injury rehab hospital I attended, Shepherd Center, was adamant on showing me all the things I could still do to keep an active physical lifestyle, even if initially I was too shocked and depressed to be open to these new activities right away. After I graduated from my inpatient stay at the center, and had earnestly adapted the “can do” attitude, I looked up some of the community activities the facility hosted. The first one that surprised me was, believe it or not, an aerobics class... for wheelchair users! Um, really? I was interested in how this was going to pan out, so out of sheer curiosity, I signed up. The class was filled with about 8 women and I was by far the youngest so I remember feeling a little out of place, but considering I originally thought I'd never be able to participate in any group exercise again, I stuck it out. The class was led by a pretty and peppy woman with spina bifada who really inspired me with her energy. High paced dance music played while we waved our arms around in choreographed fashion in many different moves and as fast possible. I was surprised to find this elevated my heart-rate quite a bit and didn't feel as dorky as I anticipated! But I really felt the challenge when we added ankle weights (to our arms, obviously) and continued at the same pace. I felt physically great again, being able to increase my heart-rate and to have a group to share it with. It wasn't the exact same feeling I had with my peers on the high school swim team, but I gained something even more valuable: the notion that despite only being able to use half of my body, I was still able to stay physically active in an enjoyable way. In my life since, I would find great physical fitness experiences through dance, adaptive sports, and eventually a return to swimming, but I also wanted to find a regular gym work out routine as well.
Accessibility + Gym = Hard to find?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I was eager to join a gym for the first time. Call it assimilation perhaps? I mean everyone is doing it, right? So shall I! Most people choose a gym close to their house or work. I quickly learned my choice needed to revolve around accessibility as some didn't even have an elevator up to the weight machines! Um, hello? (However, I guess if there is ever a place to find a big hunky guy to carry me up some stairs, that's the place. But I'm engaged now people and my fiance has that role covered!) Finding a gym with a stationery hand-cycle was a HUGE plus for me even if it was from circa 1980 and broken 50% of the time because just transferring onto it was half the work out! True, I might've benefitted from getting a personal trainer, but there are not many at local chain gyms who are familiar with spinal cord injury. And at that time, I think I enjoyed the self-educating process of figuring out which machines I could successfully transfer to and use on my own anyway. By the way, the biggest lesson I learned from my initial gym work outs was NOT to overwork my triceps during a session; considering I use them for just about every general movement in and out of my chair, if I overdid them, I could barely transfer off the machines or get back into my car! Hilarious to watch though, of course.
All of that has brought me to the present and my recent experience which made me feel completely “out of the loop” all these years! I had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Baker. He was paralyzed in 1999 at the quadriplegic level, but attained quite a bit of movement back; he will describe himself a “recovering quad” which also demonstrates his great sense of humor! After he got paralyzed, he realized there was a need for not only physical fitness gyms that were accessible, but something to cater to those with physical differences to maximize their workout experiences. So he wanted to offer an additional option, and thus, his business named C.O.R.E (Center of Restorative Exercise) was born. It officially opened it's doors on 1/1/11 (nice timing, eh?).
Considering I was already late to the plate on hearing about this awesome sounding place, I was eager to try it out! So I teamed up with a few of my “wheel friends” (shout out to Chelsie Hill, Tiffany Giddes, and Ali Stroker!) and we went for a group work out. I was blown away. Not only was the workout challenging,
I felt everything from the coaching, to the exercises, and machinery, was catered to my exact physical needs as a paraplegic. To begin with, the instructors were Restorative Exercise Specialists who “get” the fact that even though you may be a paraplegic, or quadriplegic, or amputee, you are not the same as all the others with the same diagnosis! Spinal cord injuries can manifest at different levels, abilities, and strengths and this group exercise class provided a workout customized for our needs while still making us feel part of a group. Starting out together, we did some movements similar to the aerobics class I had done so many years ago. Then we were placed at separate “stations” for certain timed intervals to get a chance to do different activities. I know I was paralyzed 21 years ago, but getting to use brand new equipment such as a seated elliptical machine that also moved my legs simultaneously was exciting for me (and beats the old stationery hand-bike)! The specialists were so knowledgeable they even knew how to set up the machine to test how my leg spasms would handle the movement at first. I felt safe under their supervision and also challenged to meet my max exertion level. And yes, they even preemptively reminded me not to overwork my triceps!
Now, I've never trained as a boxer before (yup, surprise!), but at one of the stations I got to put on gloves and do some jabs into the training mitts with a specialist. I'm not exactly ready for the ring yet, but I loved the ability to do cardio like that. When it was my time at the weight machines, I was able to stay in my chair for some of the exercises and still feel comfortable and balanced. Usually, if I try to stay in my chair for such things, I feel my balance is off or my chair moves too much (yes, I'm still stubborn on not wanting brakes on my chair). But here I was, officially an old dog learning new tricks! I guess overall I underestimated what a customized gym means for those with different abilities.
Not only did I get a great work out at C.O.R.E., I had a blast! Working out at blast?? Yes, indeed! I found out that C.O.R.E. has served over 200 people in the community thus far who have all experienced improvements in their overall quality of life. Aaron says he, “takes pride in his business knowing he's able to help people fulfill a fundamental aspect of their lives... Health.” C.O.R.E. even takes health a step further by having monthly meetings called “Life Series” events for those in the SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) community who want to get together and learn new things, talk, share stories and keep up-to-date on the latest technology and equipment.
Thanks to my experience at the C.O.R.E. center, I got a great reminder that even 21 years after getting paralyzed, I can still discover new ways to be physically active! I think it's important to keep looking for various ways to stay fit regardless of physical status or how it may change throughout life. Even if “getting fit” stays at the top of my resolution list for years to come, I learned I can always find ways to keep it fresh!