Wheelchair users are more prone to weight gain, heart disease and cancer. MARISKA MORRIS explores some exercises to help stay fit.
Exercise reduces your chances of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer. It boosts self-esteem, improves sleep quality and lowers depression by 30 percent, according to health professionals. Leandré van Tonder and Linda van der Westhuizen, physiotherapists at Summit Rehab, add that exercise also prevents “secondary complications such as urinary tract infection (UTI) and pressure sores, and reduces constipation”.
“Exercising for wheelchair users is even more important. For them it has more to do with maintaining cardiovascular output, body weight and flexibility,” says Natassia Eunson, physiotherapist at Netcare Rehab, Auckland Park. She notes that improved cardiovascular output also reduces the chance that blood clots will develop.
The United States’ national health protection agency Centers of Disease Control and Prevention state that people with a disability are three times more likely to contract heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Nearly half of all people living with a disability don’t participate in physical activity. Wheelchair users are also more susceptible to weight gain.
“Remember,” says Eunson, “as a wheelchair user the more weight you gain, the more difficult it becomes to do daily activities such as transfers and moving around.”
It is important to focus on the upper body, which is usually key when manoeuvring a wheelchair. “Arms, especially shoulders, are important to maintain stability, flexibility and muscle to prevent injury. The shoulders take a lot of strain, because pressure gets placed on them for transfers and for propelling the wheelchair,” Eunson says.
There are three main exercise groups to focus on. Cardiovascular exercises, such as walking or swimming, raise the heart rate. Strength training builds muscles and increases bone mass. Flexibility increases range of motion, prevents injury and reduces stiffness.
It is important to include all three in an exercise programme. “Consult with your doctor or therapist first,” says Eunson. “They will know what your limitations are and prescribe an appropriate routine.”
Joining a gym is a good way to stay fit. “We are very proud to say that the majority of Virgin Active clubs in South Africa are wheelchair-friendly,” says Les Aupiais, head of strategic communications at Virgin Active. The gyms have designated parking, ramps, mechanised pool hoists and accessible toilet and shower facilities.
“Many of the clubs also have lifts designed to accommodate wheelchairs. There is a variety of equipment suitable for cardio workouts and upper-body strengthening, with fitness staff more than willing to assist members,” she says. Although there is no equipment specifically designed for wheelchair users yet, many machines are accessible.
“Some clubs – because of their design – cannot be enlarged or reconfigured, or cannot retrofit lifts,” Aupiais observes. If wheelchair users find a club that is not accessible, they can contact the club general manager who will find them an alternative club in the vicinity and match the membership fees.
Van Tonder and Van der Westhuizen suggest that wheelchair users “accompany their family on regular walks around the block to increase their endurance and fitness”. There are also hiking trails in some areas: Albertville Gardens in the northwest of Johannesburg offers wide pathways, ramps and guide rails, and Melville Koppies has a 300 m mini-trail for wheelchair users.
Sport not only keeps you fit, but keeps you sociable. “People could also join a sports team, for example, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball or tennis,” Van Tonder suggests. If you enjoy swimming, there are accessible public swimming pools in Coronationville, Auckland Park and Soweto.
These pools are heated, indoor pools with accessible toilets. Coronationville also offers a ramp and lifeguard, while Soweto Pimville Pool has accessible showers.
For the more adventurous, there’s a scuba-diving club, Dive Chest, in Rossburgh, Durban.
From the Ferndale Dance Academy in Randburg and Protea Sports Club in Cape Town to Disability Bowls South Africa in Krugersdorp, South African Disabled Golfers Association and the Chilanga Riding School for the Disabled in Somerset West, there really is something for everyone.
Lawn bowler Chris Patton, a wheelchair user and president of Bowls SA Disability Bowls, keeps active with road work or trails. “Distances of up to 10 km (or more) are not a problem,” he says.
He also makes use of a standing wheelchair. “It is important for bone strength and other internal systems, as well as the good feeling that goes with standing erect,” he comments. He regularly does passive movements on his feet to prevent toes, ankles, calves and tendons from contracting.
Van Tonder also suggests that wheelchair users try and do as many of their everyday activities independently to build muscle. For strength training, for example, you can push your wheelchair forwards and backwards up a ramp. Arm raises with weights will also build strength.
“Do regular exercises. Do your stretches daily to maintain flexibility. Participate in sports if you wish to and eat healthily,” Eunson says. “Drink plenty of water and listen to your body as to how it responds to things you do.”
“Your mind is the only limiting factor for what you will be able to achieve. You can prove to yourself and anyone who’s doubtful that anything is possible,” she concludes.