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New Start: Reclaiming Health with a Disability

When the New Year begins, we often think of this time as a new beginning. Many of us create resolutions for the coming year with hopes of making improvements in our lives, like saving more money or seeing our loved ones more often. Are you considering starting your new year with a commitment to your health? I’d love to share some helpful tips for reclaiming your physical health when living with a disability.

Meena Dhanjal Outlaw

What are the Risks of Ignoring Our Health With a Disability?

We hear about the importance of physical activity and a healthy diet all the time. If you live with a disability, you may hear it even more frequently. As much of a cliché as it may seem, the truth is that taking steps to be healthier is vital to our bodies as well as our minds.

Unfortunately, when living with a disability, we must consider the risks of what could happen if we don’t take responsibility for maintaining our health. I know firsthand how easy it can be to slip out of good habits. Life is so busy with other responsibilities that it’s easy to keep pushing plans to exercise back later and later on the calendar. I have certainly gone through periods of putting my health on the backburner too.

That’s the core of the problem. It’s incredibly easy to put off exercising and eating a healthy diet. However, the more we put it off, the more potential risks to our health we may encounter later on.

The Health Risks of Inactivity and Poor Diet

When you don’t make your health a priority, you may put yourself at risk of problems such as:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of falling and muscle weakness
  • Stroke
  • Certain cancers
  • Increased risk of depression and anxiety

In addition, spinal cord injured people may be more vulnerable to certain conditions such as cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, blood clots, and pressure ulcers.

people with spinal cord injuries may be more at risk of conditions like cardiovascular disease and pneumonia

A Hard Wake-Up Call for Me

Personally, I recently found out that not being proactive about my own health led to a scary bout of pneumonia. After a few recent sessions with my occupational and physical therapists, I found out my pneumonia would likely have been more easily prevented if I had just stayed more active.

Over the last few months, I’ve been learning new exercises that include a lot of reaching and stretching motions with plenty of deep breathing. This will help me strengthen my lungs, arms, and core muscles again.

Knowing that physical exercise could potentially help prevent me from getting another secondary infection, my intentions are clear. It’s time to get serious.

Steps to Creating Your Own Disability-Friendly Fitness Regimen

1. Talk to your doctor.

Before you start an exercise program or any specific diet, it’s a good idea to make an appointment to visit your doctor. First, they can perform an annual overall health check-up to determine how you’re doing. Next, they should be able to give you the okay for certain types of exercise as well as list any considerations or exercises to avoid.

For example, as a person living with a spinal cord injury, I have to be careful about autonomic dysreflexia, which is a sudden onset of extremely high blood pressure.

In addition, your doctor may recommend a local physical therapist to you, particularly if you need or prefer guided or accompanied exercises due to your condition.

talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise or diet plan

2. Consider the pros of what exercise may help add to your life.

When it comes to making exercise a habit in your own life, sometimes it’s helpful to think about how it can improve your life first.

Here are just a few of the pros to consider that may apply:

  • Improved mood and stress levels
  • Healthy weight loss and/or maintenance
  • Making friends through new activities
  • More strength and stamina to accomplish daily tasks
  • Decreased pain
  • Increased flexibility
  • Minimizing health risks such as heart disease

Lastly, I think exercise is about having fun too. It can release endorphins that make us feel happier, making it almost like a daily medicine we can choose to give ourselves with all sorts of amazing benefits like the ones listed above.

3. Find an accessible gym or fitness facility.

Concerned about finding a place to exercise that will be accessible for you? Consider checking through your health insurance for a place if you can qualify for a few sessions of physical and occupational therapy. Depending on your insurance coverage, you may only be able to get a few weeks of therapy sessions. However, the therapist can be a great resource for learning how to exercise with your own unique anatomy and condition.

Next, check your local area to find out if a nearby community center offers services for people with disabilities. For example, in Houston, Texas, they have a multi-service fitness center made especially for people with disabilities. Their services include accessible workout equipment as well as adaptive sports you can join such as soccer, tennis, and volleyball to name a few.

If you don’t have services like this in your area, that’s okay. Plenty of people work out entirely from the comfort of their own homes, so you definitely have options.

4. Get adaptive exercise equipment to use at home.

If you prefer or plan to work out at home, and you need assistance, don’t be afraid to ask a loved one or your caregiver to set aside at least 30 minutes a day to help you work out.

Next, I suggest checking into possible adaptive exercise equipment to use. Your physical therapist may be able to offer some recommendations for home exercise equipment, such as a handcycle, resistance bands, exercise machines, or hand weights. Also, sometimes, they may have other patients with similar conditions who no longer need certain adaptive equipment. They may be willing to sell it or give it away to you for free.

For instance, a friend of mine gave me a mobile EasyStand that they no longer needed. Just taking time to stand up can also have a lot of benefits for someone in a wheelchair, so this was a fantastic option for me. I can wheel myself around while standing up, which is great when I have to keep an eye on my youngest child.

Once you have a list of equipment to get, take a look online. You might find you can save money on used adaptive exercise equipment just by checking options like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or Craigslist. As a person living on a strict budget, it took some research and patience, but I was able to find some equipment for fairly cheap. For example, I was able to buy a handcycle on sale through Wal-Mart and a rope ladder on Amazon for $30. I attach the ladder to the foot of my bed so I can do exercises while in bed.

Above all, just find equipment that makes exercise feel fun for you. I like to get out in my backyard when the weather permits, and I like to shoot hoops either by myself or with my kids. I’m terrible at it, but I still do it. Plus, the kids have fun watching me mess up.

add fun activities like playing catch to your daily routine

5. Work out at home using free resources.

Lately, I’ve become a fan of YouTube videos for help with exercising. I can find many videos of others living with my condition (spinal cord injury) and watch how they perform certain adaptive exercises. I also use many videos to incorporate adaptive wheelchair yoga and breathing exercises into my routine.

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation also provides a lot of helpful resources for people living with paralysis and physically limiting disabilities like spinal cord injuries. Check out their tips for staying fit here, which include links to all kinds of videos such as easy shoulder exercises, leg stretches, and more.

A little digging around will lead you to a wealth of information through their organization. For example, they offer tips for adaptive hobbies like gardening, finding adaptive team sports to join, and even cooking healthy meals on your own.

In conclusion, even with a disability and a tight budget, you can begin working toward reclaiming your physical health.

you can still improve your health on a tight budget

Make the Commitment to Yourself Today

At the end of the day, it really comes down to making a choice about your life and your health. Often, we don’t always appreciate our good health until it is gone. That’s why it’s important to start making yourself and your health a priority in the new year.

As you can see, starting a new adaptive fitness regimen may offer you health benefits. Plus, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, money, or preparation.

I hope my tips help you get started on a brand new year of focusing on your health.

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About the Author
New Start: Reclaiming Health with a Disability
On January 23, 2000, Meena suffered a spinal cord injury that left her a T12 paraplegic. She worked hard to grow and push past adversity and challenges, and even went back to school for a four-year diploma in writing for teenagers and children.

Since then, she has begun writing memoirs, blogs, and a book series featuring a young girl named Mattie who is in a wheelchair. She has been featured in magazines, fashion shows, radio shows, and on local news to speak about her life as a disabled woman, wife, and mother. Through her work, she hopes to inspire others with disabilities.