Diminishing Returns: reflections on paralysis, aging and me

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on April 05, 2017 # Health

The "Ides of life" that I worked toward, and looked forward to enjoying, throughout my younger years has certainly proved to be a challenging time. It doesn't help that I am approaching the 30th year past my cervical spinal cord injury which left me paralyzed and quadriplegic back in 1988. Numerous conversations with friends who are not paralyzed reveal that they have their own struggles at this stage of life, but paralysis seems to put an exclamation mark on my aches, pains and the series of ailments that befall me.

I know, I know; it could be worse, as I might not have survived this long. Don't get me wrong; I am grateful for every post-injury minute that I have been able to enjoy, especially those spent with family and friends. I've watched my teenage daughters grow up to be caring, successful and beautiful women who are raising grandsons for me to enjoy even further into the future. They, and countless others, have done much to support me through these decades--decades that sometimes presented new obstacles that none of us had anticipated.

Living with paralysis has always seemed to be a constant battle. A friend who shares a similar disability once pointed out that just getting out of bed in the morning could be seen as a "Herculean accomplishment." She equated our lives to being similar to that of superheroes, requiring focus and the fortitude to push on despite whatever obstacles we encounter.

With that in mind, I have always taken pride in working hard in order to be active, engaged and as healthy as possible. Exercise, a decent diet, minimizing alcoholic beverage consumption, never smoking, sufficient hydration, constant attention to cleanliness and periodic medical and dental checkups have served me well, thus far.

Unfortunately, many of these good habits--especially the first two--have become more difficult to maintain with the advance of age.

My daily exercise routine, at least what passes for exercise in my world, is pretty basic. I start the morning and end my day with range of motion exercising, with resistance, on all four limbs. That keeps my joints flexible and the few remaining muscle fibers stretched out and awakened so they are usable for eating, typing and sometimes driving. A former therapist once told me that such repetitions would allow me to remain as independent as possible during the day, and that has proven true thus far.

The only real exercise I receive comes later. Because I am quadriplegic and use a power wheelchair, I have minimal opportunities for aerobic exercise as part of my normal day. Fortunately, I own a Saratoga Cycle that I purchased used and which is designed for "accessible aerobic exercise." That machine allows me to pull up to it, grab the handles and start rotating them in the same manner as some of those handcyclists that compete in racing. However, if I was in such a race I would be lucky to complete more than 100 yards before I stopped due to exhaustion or boredom. Despite my definitely "not aerobic" exercise routine, I continue to do it in the hopes that I can remain as independent as possible.

My other area of concern is my diet. Even though I have not been on a scale for years I know that my weight continues to increase as time goes on. The aforementioned lack of exercise is one contributing factor, but it seems that each sweet, carbohydrate or tasty food that I consume is immediately converted into more of the body fat that surrounds my abdominal area. Some of my friends have commented on how little I seem to eat, but they were not there when I had my morning English muffin or grazed from my kitchen snack drawer during the day.

I know that obesity is a contributing factor when it comes to many other diseases including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and even more. While obesity is practically an epidemic in our country, I choose not to be an unhealthy member of that demographic.

The Ides of March just ended, but I don't want my Ides of Life to follow suit. With that in mind, I am renewing my long-ago broken New Year's Resolutions and doubling the amount of daily exercise while further reducing unhealthy calorie intake. While I may not attain the additional "four score and seven years" that President Lincoln mentioned, I want every one of those years that are left to be a time of quality.

© 2017 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.