David is a level 4 personal trainer and works as the Fitness Duty Manager at the Aspire Leisure Centre in Stanmore. As well as Duty Manager responsibilities, David is also the Assistant Gym Manager and runs the GP Referral Scheme. David sustained a spinal cord injury in 2006 due to an accident at work. David offers specialist personal training sessions for disabled people at Rolling Forwards.

David outside

I have always been into sport since a very young age. I trained in gyms regularly before my accident and spent a lot of time swimming as a teenager, I’ve always been very physically active. After my spinal cord injury I couldn’t do any exercise, and I thought I’d never be able to enjoy being active or working out in the gym again. Being unable to do the things that I used to enjoy left me feeling really depressed, I put on weight and began to feel very unhealthy.

When I was in rehab at Stanmore I was invited to do the InstructAbility Programme by Aspire to become a Level 2 Gym Instructor with level 3 Exercise for Disability. I really enjoyed the course and learning how to adapt exercise to suit wheelchair use. It gave me the boost I needed and the confidence to get back into fitness and exercising again after my spinal cord injury. After this I went on to educate myself further, becoming a Level 3 Personal Trainer, then on to become certified as a Level 4 Specialist Personal Trainer with GP referral, Chronic Lower Back Pain.

Why is it so important to exercise with a spinal cord injury?

It’s really important to keep active with a spinal cord injury. Your body is not as efficient as it once was and this means your metabolism slows right down from being inactive, so you can put on weight even if you’re not eating much. Being more active speeds up your metabolism and helps with controlling your weight, and this can also have huge benefits on the injury itself too. Being fitter also helps with the daily pushing of your wheelchair and strengthening key muscles can ease bladder and bowel issues that can be associated with Spinal Cord Injury.

Exercise can have a really positive impact on your general wellbeing and mental health too. Exercise releases happy endorphins whilst you work out, improving your mood, and gives you clear goals to work towards to keep your mind focused. It also encourages you to get outside and to socialise with others. At Aspire Leisure Centre around 32% of our members are disabled, and getting to know people who are in a similar situation and understand how you’re feeling can really help when you’re having a bad day.

David in the gym

Which areas should I focus on when exercising in a wheelchair?

Your shoulders and core are very important areas to focus on when working out, especially if you’re exercising in a wheelchair. Your shoulders take a lot of strain when pushing your chair or transferring, so shoulder mobility is important to help prevent injury. Your core muscles are also equally important. These muscles can help you to stand, if you can, or with transfers and general movement, including lifting or pulling up.

Alongside your shoulders and core, your triceps and biceps also play a key role in in pushing your chair or pulling yourself up, plus general wheelchair manoeuvring. Don't be scared to train your back either. There are a number of muscles we use daily in our backs, even whilst sitting in a wheelchair, that can benefit from strengthening exercises.

A few great exercises to get started with are two sets of 10 reps of each:
Bicep Curls (Therabands/dumbbells)
Shoulder presses (Therabands/dumbbells) sit to stand (if you can)
Shoulder rotations (using your body weight)
Wall Angels (backing your wheelchair against a wall to do these).

Therabands are resistance bands made from latex that are great to use and cheap to buy, and they can really help to push your workout to the next level. Small dumbbells are another option. You could also try using bags of sugar, flour, or bottles of water. If these are too much, or you’re just starting out, then simply using your bodyweight is perfectly fine too. Find something you enjoy!

David throwing a Shotput

Exercise doesn’t have to be gym or sports focused if that’s not your thing. It’s important to find something that you enjoy doing so that you’ll keep it up. Think about what interests you - maybe you like pushing your chair outside, going to the shops, swimming or even gardening. These are all very active, and will help to boost your metabolism and strengthen your muscles.

Choosing an activity you like can help to make exercising more fun, and setting yourself a mixture of small and big goals along the way will give you a reason to want to do it. I personally love taking part in Parasport, as I get to go to some amazing places, meet amazing people and do things I probably never would have if I wasn’t disabled!

Joining a club or team can also help with motivation. Aspire Leisure Centre has a huge range of inclusive activities, but you could also try your local leisure centre as they are becoming increasingly more inclusive. There is a huge variety of clubs and sports for disabled people now. My advice would be to contact the national governing body for the sport you’re interested in, as most have a disabled or para section, and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

David at the InstructAbility Awards

Although exercise should have some degree of difficulty to allow you to improve, you don't have to make it a hardship. It should be fun and something you look forward to doing. My main advice would be don't be scared or think you can’t do it, just get out there and enjoy yourself, the rest will all fall into place!

Top tips for keeping fit and active with a spinal cord injury:
● Don’t be scared of exercising with a spinal cord injury.
● Set yourself realistic goals to work towards to make exercise enjoyable.
● Get involved with a group class or sport to help keep you motivated.
● Focus on strengthening your shoulders, core, triceps and biceps to help make pushing and transferring from your wheelchair easier.
● If you don’t like the gym, try gardening, outdoor activities or walking/pushing for set amounts of time.
● Find something you enjoy doing, and have fun!

David in a swimming pool