• Indianapolis Rehabilitation Hospital

How Exercise Can Help Spinal Cord Injuries

A Spinal cord injury can damage any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. This often causes reduced strength, sensation and other body functions below area of the injury. The lasting effects of a spinal cord injury can be quite devastating. But exercise and physical activity can help patients with these injuries.


Physical activity is important for everyone. Exercise helps reduce the risk of developing chronic health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and even diabetes. Studies have also shown it can reduce some cancer risks. For people with a spinal cord injury, exercise can be a key factor in recovery. Some of the benefits of physical activity are listed below:


  • Improves energy levels and ability to take part in activities

  • Strengthens muscles

  • Improves mood

  • Improves sleep

  • Decreases risk of heart disease


With all these benefits why not continue to push yourself to maintain a healthy level of exercise? Not only can it help achieve a healthy lifestyle but also has lasting benefits even after you get done being active. Studies have shown that after increased physical activity the body continues to burn calories for hours after. But how can exercise help those with a spinal cord injury?

Those who are exercise prior to injury face a lower risk of secondary complications such as UTI’s, pressure sores and respiratory illness. Physical activity can also help control weight gain and chronic pain. Improving strength and endurance is also a major benefactor exercise can have on ones health. Not only can you see physical improvements but reducing stress and increasing mental health by releasing feel good endorphins through exercise can work wonders for patients.


Adjusting to life after a major spinal cord injury can be quite difficult. Exercise not only contributes to your rehab but also establishes a healthy lifestyle post injury. Working out at a local gym or finding recreation leagues provides a way of meeting people and reducing future health risks.



Exercise for individuals with a spinal cord injury are divided into three categories:


  • Aerobic exercise to maintain cardiovascular health

  • Strength-based training to maintain and perform daily activities, improve mobility, and preventing future muscle injury due to weakness

  • Flexibility training to improve range of motion and reduce spasticity


At this time exercise is the only known intervention that can have lasting effects on function after spinal cord injury, both in promoting neural recovery and in reducing secondary complications.


The CDC recommends three exercise options for adults:


  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week and strength training 2 or more days per week. Strength training should focus on all possible major muscle groups.

  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise every week and strength training 2 or more days per week, with strength training 2 days a week

  • An equal mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise and strength training 2 or more days per week, with strength training 2 days a week


If you can’t meet these guidelines, then exercise regularly based on your abilities. Avoiding inactivity, especially after a spinal cord injury, is imperative for an optimal recovery. Talk to a trainer, physical therapist, or doctor if you have concerns about how much activity you should be getting post spinal cord injury.


Stretching is also a great way to present and treat stiff muscles and joints. A good flexibility program should stretch all major muscle groups. You should focus on your shoulders, knees, and ankles because these are common areas of tightness after a spinal cord injury. You should stretch most days of the week. Some find stretching throughout the day also makes a huge difference after injury. Start out by gently stretching each muscle group for at least 30 seconds. Repeat each stretch as needed for a longer period of time to improve flexibility and movement. Examples of stretching based exercises include:


  • Yoga

  • Laying on your stomach

  • Using a standing frame

  • Using exercise bands.


The best thing about these exercises are that they are easily performed within the comfort of your own home.


Even though exercise can be extremely beneficial there are some things to be aware of when doing any physical activity.


Be careful with your transfers on and off equipment and look for areas that could cause friction, pressure, or shearing. Be mindful of protecting and monitoring your skin during any exercise activity.


Also be mindful to not overdue any physical activity. Exercise should not be painful. If pain is occurring during a workout stop what you are doing immediately. Further exercise can cause more harm than good.


If you or a loved one has experienced a spinal cord injury please contact us today at Indianapolis Rehab Hospital to learn what treatment is best for you. We are here to answer any questions that may come up during the recovery process.

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