Exercise following a spinal cord injury

Exercise Guidelines Following a Spinal Cord Injury

Damage to the spinal cord can, depending on its severity, have a lasting and life-changing impact on the individual. People who have a spinal cord injury (SCI) have to contend with lack of mobility but may also suffer from other health issues that can arise as a result of the injury, including obesity, higher blood sugar levels and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

A big challenge for spinal cord injury patients can be attempting to stay as active and healthy as possible. The good news is that, even after an SCI, regular exercise can have a huge impact on the individual’s health and will certainly help reduce the risk of additional problems such as putting on weight and potentially developing diabetes.

There may well be many hurdles to overcome and it’s important for the individual to understand what they are capable of and to set realistic goals before attempting to exercise following a spinal cord injury.

The Benefits of Exercise Following a Spinal Cord Injury

There’s no doubt that exercise on a regular basis has enormous benefits. This is true for everyone, including those with a disability.

  • Exercise improves energy levels
  • Exercise develops and maintains muscle strength
  • Exercise improves flexibility and decreases
  • Exercise can reduce pain some SCI patients
  • Exercise could help to improve quality of sleep
  • Exercise will improve mood and sense of wellbeing

Health-wise, being more active means that an individual’s weight will be better managed, their cholesterol levels won’t spike and it may also decrease the chance of developing heart disease. Taking part in group exercise activities means that they may also be less isolated and less likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

Exercise Guidelines for Individuals with a Spinal Cord Injury

Exercising at home
Exercising at home can be a very convenient option

The general recommendation is that we should all be doing around 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise which gets us breathing heavy or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise. Most people will undertake a mixture of the two depending on their ability and preferences.

Ideally, we all should be including three types of exercise to help improve and maintain our overall fitness. This is no different for individuals with spinal cord injuries, in fact in some cases, it may be even more important.

1. Strength Training

Lifting weights to target the muscles that an individual with a spinal cord injury is still able to control is important for maintaining muscle mass. Weight training can be done at home. It’s not necessary to visit a gym. Training with a couple of dumbbells or even moderately heavy household items will do the trick.

2. Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is great for overall lung and heart health, especially if it’s performed to the point whereby the individual is out of breath and sweating to an extent. Each session should include a warm up and warm down to avoid further injury.

3. Stretching

It’s not just physical effort that is important to overall health. Any exercise after a spinal cord injury that stretches the body is good. Many areas of the body such as the shoulders and arms can get tight after a SCI, and a regular stretching routine will help prevent this. and improve flexibility.

Things to Look Out For

Of course, there are more things to bear in mind when exercising with a spinal cord injury and there may be several issues to overcome.

However this should certainly not be a deterrent which stops the individual from pursuing exercise. It is essential that a discussion is made with a medical professional, in order to create a safe and effective exercise plan and prevent exacerbating the individual’s injury or causing new injuries.

Here are just a few issues to consider:

  • One should get into a habit of checking their skin for any problems after an exercise session, particularly if they are getting on and off equipment
  • Those with spinal cord problems can often suffer from overuse injuries. If certain muscle groups are already being worked during regular daily activity, a good idea would be to focus on areas that are not so well developed
  • Spasticity as a result of a spinal cord injury may affect how one uses certain equipment and it may take a while to find a way around the issue
  • Some people with a spinal cord injury have trouble controlling body temperature. It’s important to ensure that plenty of fluids are consumed before, during and after exercise

Recommended Types of Exercise

The type of exercise that should be undertaken by an individual with a spinal cord injury may be determined by the type of injury and the extent of the damage that has been sustained. The good news is that many common exercise options can be tailored to suit the needs of the individual in question.

  • For stretching, the use of simple resistance bands may help
  • Aerobic exercises such as swimming, circuit training or hand cycling can be great options for getting the heart pumping. There are also many places that cater for wheelchair sports, including tennis and basketball
  • Strength training which can be carried out at a gym or in the home

In general, adjustments may need to be made to allow an individual with a spinal cord injury to exercise safely and effectively. For example, straps may be required to improve stability and cuffs may be needed to help grip equipment.


The benefits of regularly exercising are numerous, and this is true for everybody. Not only will regular sessions improve overall fitness and lower the risk of heart disease, but they can also have a profound impact on mental health and overall happiness.