You don't have to be a Paralympic athlete to get the benefits of physical activity — although watching them is inspiring!
"If a disability occurs at birth or in early childhood, then physical fitness will be part of growing up, like it is for most kids," says David Legg, current president of the Canadian Paralympic Association. "But when it occurs as an adult — for example, having a spinal cord injury, being diagnosed with a disease that affects your strength or control of movement, or requiring an amputation — then it can be more difficult to get or stay physically active. However, it is possible and very realistic to do so."
Build your confidence
While children who are disabled overcome physical activity hurdles through school or club programs, becoming disabled as an adult may mean having to overcome emotional factors that can hold you back.
Being embarrassed about your ability or appearance may mean that you aren't ready to put on a bathing suit and join others in the pool, but you can start with other activities to help boost your confidence. And as your strength and abilities grow, start trying new activities — or return to the things you once loved.
"What's important is that you do anything physical," advises David. "You don't need fancy equipment or clothing." For example:
- Going for a walk or wheeling around your neighbourhood
- Enjoying a game of backyard badminton
Basic guidelines for maximum benefit
"While guidelines for people with disabilities are still being researched, based on new Physical Activity Guidelines information sheets issued by the Government of Canada and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, we know that it's important to have aerobic and strength exercises as part of your fitness program," David explains. Of course, you should get your healthcare provider's approval before starting any new fitness program. And if you don't know where to start or how to progress, then ask your doctor or physical therapist for advice on finding a trainer with experience working with people with physical disabilities.
To get you started, here are some suggestions:
Aim for 2.5 hours per week (even in 10 minutes intervals) at moderate or vigorous intensity:
- Brisk walking
- Wheeling or arm cycling
- Water exercises
- Cross-country skiing
- Vigorous arm movements (if you can't use the large muscles in your legs and buttocks)
Muscle and bone strengthening exercises
At least twice a week; your muscles should feel tired after 8 to 10 repetitions of one exercise:
- Lift weights (try ankle weights strapped to your wrists if you can't grasp weights)
- Elastic exercise or resistance bands
- Weight machines (some can be adapted for various disabilities with straps, pulleys and D rings)
Club it for fun
"Living with a physical disability doesn't mean the active part of your life is over," says David Legg. "You may have to swap one activity for another — golfing to swimming, for example — or make adjustments to how you do things. But you can still do them."
Joining a sports club is one way to get active, challenge yourself, try something new and meet new people. And it's also a good way to see how others have adapted equipment or technique.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee has an in-depth listing of just-for-fun parasport clubs across Canada. Here are just a few of the sports you can try:
- Bocce (lawn bowling)
- Sitting volleyball
- Skiing (alpine and cross-country)
- Sledge hockey
- Table tennis
- Wheelchair dance
- Wheelchair fencing
"More and more, we're finding that the benefits of physical activity are endless," explains David. "And so are the possibilities of being active when you have a physical disability."