Snow What?

Don’t let bitter winter cold keep you from exercise. These indoor workout ideas will keep you fit and healthy.

Joe Empie will work out anywhere.

Since using a wheelchair after having his right leg amputated eight months ago, he loves finding unique places to exercise.

He’ll pick golf courses, the sidewalks in his neighborhood or even inside his house.

But you’d never guess where the 46-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., likes to rehab most.

Instead of working out at home or at a gym, Empie drives to his local mall and pushes around for a couple hours. Although he acknowledges it’s tougher for people with disabilities in winter weather climates, he still thinks the benefits and exercise outweigh the hassles.

“[The mall’s] a great climate-controlled area, nice smooth surface, plus they have emergency services on the premises,” says Empie, a former PGA pro in Houston who developed vascular disease along with blood clots in his right leg. “So that’s a great place to go if you can’t afford to go to a gym or if you can’t afford physical therapy, just go to the mall and move.”

So what does Empie do?

Dan Stietz, 50, performs dumbbell workouts at his home in Dover, Minn. He’s had a spinal-cord injury since 2003, but keeps active thanks to exercises like these, which he says keep his arm strength up.

Besides rolling around the mall, he also performs chair lifts. Many malls have lowered benches and he takes full advantage of those — lifting himself out of the chair, then onto the bench and vice versa. It helps strengthen his arms and shoulders. In fact, in just over a year Empie has lost about 100 pounds by eating healthier and constantly moving around.

“I don’t sit on the couch, not until my day is done anyway,” says Empie, who also serves as an independent golf instructor. “And every morning I’m out for at least two hours — an hour at the mall and then doing something, somewhere.”

Challenges of Exercise

Exercising with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) can be challenging with minimal resources around — even moreso in the winter months. With the cold temperatures and snow or ice accumulating, just maneuvering around outside can turn frustrating.

Megan Gill, clinical lead physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, acknowledges there are indoor exercises you can do. Which exercises you complete depend on your level of injury — either tetraplegia or paraplegia, and which muscles are activated.

“[People with SCI/D] need to have a flexibility and stretching program that allows them to maintain their function and their mobility specifically as well as prevent injury. Then, there’s a variation of different types of exercises to get heart rate up and to maximize on their conditioning program with TheraBands or with dumbbells,” Gill says. “There are some resources for people like video exercise programs that have been done specific for those with SCI that are available online for purchase. But, they are very limited compared to the able-bodied population, as well as general understanding for what their aerobic condition is and their ability to use their autonomic nervous system and to get that heart rate up.”

Gill says any activity that lasts 15–20 minutes to get your heart rate up to 130 beats per minute maximum is good for people with tetraplegia. She recommends upper body (shoulders, deltoids and pecks) exercises to keep rotator cuffs healthy and lower body (hamstrings, hips and ankles) exercises to help with mobility.

Easy Home Workouts

Paul Hopkins makes sure he follows that regimen. Ever since Hopkins bought some inexpensive dumbbells and a handcycle, in-home workouts are a breeze.

A C-6/8 paraplegic, the 26-year-old wanted to find some ways to keep in shape for wheelchair rugby. So he scoured sporting goods stores and found some reliable, affordable equipment.

Hopkins bought small hand weights, which fit his fingers or his hands, for bicep, tricep and arm curls. He can easily watch television and do the interval workouts for 30 minutes at a time.

He also ties elastic bands to the door, picks them up and stretches his shoulder muscles out.

His best workouts come when he performs both routines.

“[The elastic bands] help my shoulders, keep my shoulders in shape,” Hopkins says. “Then the dumbbells help me get a cardio workout. Low weight, high reps.”

But Hopkins’ best buy came when he purchased a handcycle machine called an Active Cycle for just $90. It may be his most valuable exercise purchase because he can work just his arms or both his arms and legs out inside his home.

“What I’m doing is if I’m not working my legs out, I don’t plug it in. I just put it on the table and do it,” says Hopkins, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., but is originally from Alexandria, Va. “Or if you’re working your legs out, then you have to plug it in ‘cause it will move your legs for you.”

Courtney Ryan has an even more unique idea than using dumbbells or elastic bands for workouts — plastic jugs.

Milk or water gallon jugs work, as do full water bottles or empty water bottles filled with a heavy substance, says the 24-year-old from Tucson. Then you can use those to work out your biceps and upper body. All you need is an object that will give you a little resistance.

“You can even just use your chair … You bring your feet out and you do a dip. Getting on the floor and doing ab exercises, just like little crunches, even if you don’t have that much function you’re still working on your core,” says Ryan, who developed a T-9 SCI from blood vessel clots. “Then the last thing that I’ve done in the past is, you know those wrist weights? Just strap those onto the back of your chair. There’s a wrist part … on the very bottom so that it gives you a little bit more resistance when you’re pushing around.”

Finding a Way to Work Out

After suffering a T-10 complete SCI from being hurt in a motorcycle accident in 2003, Dan Stietz didn’t give up on working out. He just found more resourceful ways to exercise.

Living in Dover, Minn., about 1½ hours south of the Twin Cities, he’s used to figuring out ways to exercise indoors, especially during the winter.

The 50-year-old performs all kinds of workout routines, including bench presses or inclined bench presses with 25-pound weights while laying on his bed or on his handcycle and bicep curls, tricep pushes and dumbbell arm raises from his chair or handcycle.

The owner of an Invacare RX handcycle, Stietz put in a regular trainer, a device which allows him to train indoors. His handcycle is a lay-down bike and inclines a little bit, and he set it up so he can pull and push both the handcycle’s arms together. It minimizes trunk movement so it’s not always constantly twisting and works his arms, chest and upper back.

“My favorite [exercise] is just working out on the bike. I’ll do the weights just to make sure I’m keeping my strength and all muscles balanced,” Steitz says. “I always liked to run before. I’m the type of person that’s in the minority. I just love to work out. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up on a farm with all the haybaling that we did. Physical exercise, I just kind of loved to do it.”


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