Read This. Set a Goal. Start Today
Fitness resolutions may be a New Year’s cliché, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have merit. They can be helpful reminders of where we are…and where we want to be. People of all abilities need to work towards good health, but fitness can be especially life-altering for people with disabilities. It’s not just about aesthetics, but also about strength, flexibility, energy, stress relief and self-esteem. If you want to get fit, there can be no excuses. “‘Show up, shut up and do the work,’ is what I tell myself when I don’t feel like exercising,” says Richard Perrin, who sustained a spinal cord injury in a 2009 motorcycle accident. “Even if my heart isn’t in it, I always start my workouts. The motivation switches on while I’m working out.”
One driving force behind Perrin’s exercise regime has been maintaining and increasing his strength and mobility. His routine includes physiotherapist-prescribed exercises five days a week for strength and conditioning along with wheelchair basketball twice a week for cardio, core strength and fun.
For people with physical disabilities who want to slow down a degenerative condition or maintain and increase their fitness, Perrin recommends prioritizing what you want to work on. “My body will be a multi-year project for me,” he says. Perrin, who hails from Ottawa, is currently concentrating on maintaining his upper body strength and increasing his leg strength in the time that he has available for exercising.
Goal setting is important to achieving personal fitness, and setting realistic goals is the key. Everyone’s health, disability and abilities are unique. Rick Hellard, head coach of Zone3Sports, a triathlon-training club in Ottawa, encourages people to enlist the advice of a doctor or a physiotherapist in this process—they can help you make sure that the goals you set are achievable. “If you are an athlete who has recently acquired a disability or a health condition,” Hellard warns, “You may need to reset your dial and check your ego at the door before you set new goals.”That doesn’t mean you have to give up on your more lofty objectives, just that you need to be patient with yourself. Perrin’s “big goal,” for example, is to improve his walking “to the point where it is practical and useful.” He is breaking this down into small, achievable “bites” that include strengthening his leg muscles, which have recently regained function.
“If you have a disability, you have to work within the possible,” says Perrin, who recalls that before his accident, the amount of training he invested resulted in a significant improvement in his performance. Now, there is a level of frustration that is inherent because change doesn’t come as quickly. Perrin has dealt with these feelings by focusing on remaining “relentlessly positive,” working with what comes and building from where he is now. So, while there is something to be said for trying to live by the “No Limits” bumper sticker, the key is to work within your body’s own parameters. If you have a cyclical health condition with flare-ups (as in the case of those with lupus, arthritis or multiple sclerosis), it’s not reasonable to expect that you are going to be able to perform at a given and consistent level.
“You can always find a story [on the Internet] about someone with the same condition you have who was able to do more than you,” says Hellard. He has a simple answer to the problem—just don’t read them. Instead, he suggests creating a workout log to keep track of your own progress. When you are doing better, you’ll keep on going. Maintaining a log is a practise that is useful for anyone, from those just beginning an exercise program to elite athletes.
To stay motivated during a training program “find fun people to play with,” Hellard suggests. This means seeking out training partners you look forward to spending time with. “The biggest advantage of any training group is that you start to feel part of it, and you miss your friends if you don’t show up,” he says. Whether Perrin is meeting his wheelchair basketball team for a game or his physiotherapist for a scheduled appointment, he finds that having other people counting on him is intrinsically motivating. It “keeps him honest” in executing his training program.
If you don’t have anyone that’s willing or able to start a program with you today, look into joining an established group (see sidebar), program or organized sport. You can also create your own “club” on a site like meetup.com.
There are a myriad of adaptive sports programs across the country. Fitness is not one-size-fits-all. You may have to try a few different activities before you find the one that suits your personality. Many recreation centres hold adapted exercise classes that offer a sense of community, as well as fitness and fun. If you don’t find what you’re looking for in the adapted offerings, feel free to sign up for any class that interests you. Many activities can be accommodated, and most instructors will be happy to work with you to modify your workouts as needed. Think: Wheelchair Zumba or Arms-Only Power Swim.
And who knows what will happen? While just feeling better is the best reward, you never can guess where fitness will take you. Perrin’s consistent hard work gave him the opportunity to participate in the Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Cross-Canada Relay as a medal bearer. On Oct. 28, 2011, Perrin wheeled the first part of his relay portion and walked the last 100 metres with his wife and two young daughters cheering him on.
Remember to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.