​Stretch Yourself

Posted by Howard Menaker in Life After Paralysis on October 10, 2022 # Exercise

HowardBefore my spinal cord injury, I truly enjoyed working out in the gym. I would never have been called a “gym rat” or a muscle guy, but it felt good to get in there, lift some weights, do some cardio exercise and come out an hour later feeling healthier and stronger. Getting to the gym was the hard part, but once I got through the door, I was committed to my workouts.

Since I have been going to the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury for 7 years now, I have worked with a great personal trainer in their wellness program. For most of us with paralysis, the average gym is not equipped to address our needs. But my trainer has worked with equipment suppliers to build weight machines and other workout aids specifically designed for people in wheelchairs. While he leaves my leg strength and mobility development to my physical therapists, he definitely puts me through my paces. Through a program of lifting weights and doing cardio under his watchful eye, I work hard to keep my upper body in shape. And I have seen results.

A couple of months ago, while on a break from therapy, my lower back began to hurt… a lot. I could not get through the pain, and took what medication my system would tolerate. But I didn’t want to become dependent on the pain medication. I was not in physical therapy, and my pain prevented me from even doing home workouts. So what could I do?

During the COVID shutdown, I had re-connected with a personal trainer I had worked with in my gym for a year or so before the pandemic. He was now doing training by video, from his home to yours. Throughout 2020 and 2021, he and I worked on strength training and cardio for my upper body when I was not in therapy, keeping my muscles in shape. But in that painful time, I was in no shape to lift weights or even do resistance training. And I was miserable.

Most personal trainers will advise clients to stretch after every workout, and I knew stretching was good for me. In fact, all my physical therapy sessions began with stretching before we even started on strength and mobility work. What never occurred to me is that stretching alone can have a huge benefit for those of us with spinal cord injuries.

My online trainer worked with me to create a stretching program, primarily designed to ease my back pain, but also to be sure my entire upper body didn’t just sit in my wheelchair all day without getting any exercise.

All of us sit for hours in front of our computers. We have varying levels of mobility and strength. For some people, even stretching is out of the question. But if we can, developing a stretching regimen can make a significant difference in how we feel and the progress we can make. As I raise my arms over my head, turn my torso to each side, or just bend forward and let the weight of my body stretch my lower back, I can feel the release of muscles made tense by hours of sitting still. If you can do pressure releases, lifting yourself up by your arms to come out of your chair once in a while, your backside will definitely feel better.

I have heard it said, “It is better to stretch yourself than stress yourself.” These are wise words, and working with a personal trainer or your physical therapist to design a stretching program will boost your self-confidence as well as your strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, and cardiovascular health. So stretch yourself – you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the result!

Howard Menaker is a retired communications and public affairs executive, with over 30 years of experience in international corporations and trade associations. Previously, he worked as an attorney, specializing in civil litigation. He now devotes much of his time serving on non-profit boards of directors, including a prominent theater company and a historic house museum in the Washington, DC area. He and his husband split their time between Washington and Rehoboth Beach, DE.

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.