Why I'm Promoting Physical Fitness on World Cerebral Palsy Day

I have cerebral palsy and I’m a big fan of DIY fitness training. I’ve enjoyed reading health/fitness magazines, watching exercise routines, and working out for as long as I can remember. In high school, I rode a stationary bike while listening to my favorite music. By the time I enrolled in college, I’d purchased a NordicTrack. I loved “skiing” (something I could never do because of CP) indoors and breaking a good sweat. I did cardio/strength training classes at the gym for years, then graduated to working out at home. I exercised not only because I enjoyed it, but because it was good for cardiovascular health, weight loss, etc. What I didn’t realize is how beneficial — and essential — physical fitness is for people with cerebral palsy.

The American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM) defines physical fitness as “a general state of health that results in your ability to carry out daily tasks without getting too tired.” It wasn’t until decades later — when I had selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) surgery and became a disability advocate — that I learned the damage (often referred to as “early aging”) spasticity, or abnormal muscle tightness, does to our bodies. It can cause a decrease in endurance and walking as well as muscle and joint pain. Plus, those with CP who can walk independently with or without walking aids increasingly need wheelchairs. Did you know that we use three to five times the amount of energy that non-disabled people use when they move and walk? It’s no wonder fatigue is one of the common problems reported by people with CP as they get older.

For adults, the American Heart Association recommends “at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week for additional health benefits.” There is no evidence to suggest that these requirements should be any different for people with cerebral palsy.

My favorite workouts combine cardio and strength training. I like to pack as much as possible into 30 minutes; sometimes less or more, depending on the routine. Don’t worry if modifying is necessary — and don’t let that stop you from exercising! It’s easy to adapt most moves to your ability and/or fitness level. For example, I use a chair to do burpees and for balance while doing lunges. Stay hydrated and remember to stretch (very important if you have CP) before and after any activity, especially if you need more than what’s included in the workout. Keep this in mind: The only form of exercise that matters is what you’ll do. If you’ve never worked out before, start slow and consult your doctor.

I recently purchased a Pilates machine. Now that I’m 43, it’s been fun learning slow, non-impact exercises excellent for core strength, increased range of motion through stretching and stabilization — areas in which people with cerebral palsy are usually lacking. I firmly believe that a life-long habit of consistent exercise helped maintain my high function level. It’s important to learn about your body and how exercise can help the effects of cerebral palsy as you or your loved one ages. Physical fitness is one of the best gifts you can give your body and your cerebral palsy. Don’t wait until it’s too late — get moving!

Editor’s Note: Always consult a medical professional before beginning any exercise program.

This article was originally published on the World CP Day Blog.

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