Physical fitness is taking the forefront of public health as reports on America’s obesity problems continue to roll in. Medical and academic literature cites the benefits of fitness and its tendency to reduce or prevent problems like obesity, diabetes mellitus, arthritis and depression. However, when people read that literature, they don’t often think about Americans with physical disabilities.
The effects of poor fitness apply to everyone whether you’re bipedal, wheelchair bound, on crutches or tetraplegic. In fact, for Americans with such disabilities it can be considerably more difficult to commit the physical and mental energy it takes to stay fit. The good news is that the same medical advances that have decreased mortality levels for devastating physical catastrophes have moved from treating the initial handicap toward preventing complications; more and more people are learning to live with a physical handicap.
A physical disability (whether congenital in nature, the result of a traumatic injury, or developing as the result of a chronic disease) no longer relegates an individual to suffer the physical, mental and psychological consequences of poor fitness. Achieving physical fitness promotes higher levels of self-esteem and independence, particularly for those individuals who have experienced disabilities secondary to traumatic injuries, such as military veterans or athletes.
The Paralympic Games are the apex of athletic competitions for individuals with mobility disabilities and amputations. Borne out of a group of British soldiers in 1948, the Paralympics are the premier international sporting event for disabled people. It is also a huge player in the movement to get physically disabled people engaged in competitive sports at a high level. As is often the case, the outbreak of war led to many of the innovations that enable the Paralympic Games and specialized fitness in general.
Returning Vietnam veterans in need of prosthetic limbs fueled the development of newer types of prostheses that allowed greater physical mobility and independence. Individual athletes began to organize events, games, races and other competitions to practice their skills and invite other participants. Advances in technology and materials allowed for superiorly designed prosthetic limbs and specialized “sport” wheelchairs designed for competition such as those depicted in MTV’s 2005 documentary, Murder ball, which won multiple awards and audience praise as it followed the lives and games of competitive, disabled rugby players.
For the average American who may have amputated limbs or be bound to a mobility aid, the Paralympic games may provide inspiration to work through setbacks to achieve or maintain fitness, but how does one go about that?
Many rehabilitation clinics are affiliated with the Paralympic Sports Club, which offers fitness programs and promotes fitness to adults and youth, whether they are trying to become the world’s best athletes or just get in shape. Gyms are available, but more often than not, they are not optimized for disabled athletes. Because the range of afflictions is so broad, a personal gym is often the best solution since it allows the individual to get equipment that suits their needs. Dumbbells, barbells and accompanying equipment are usually affordable and easy to transport. Those with more specific needs may have to seek out a gym, although they are few and far between in the U.S. The site Fitlink is one resource for locating gyms that accommodate disabled people.
The Wounded Warriors Project is perhaps the largest and most well known organization actively advocating for organizing, educating and aiding disabled veterans with specific goals that include increased physical fitness. In the early days, the Disabled American Veterans organization offered rides to handicapped veterans who needed transportation to and from doctor’s appointments. The Wounded Warriors Project goals are specifically designed to surpass such “help” and seek to “optimize” veterans’ physical and mental health through “comprehensive recreation and sports programs, physical health promotion strategies … and physical rehabilitation designed to help maximize independence.” Wounded warriors are not only mentored through a physical and psychological retraining program, they are also provided with tools and adaptive technologies such as handicap vans and mobile computing devices. The ultimate goals of this organization’s interventions include independence and optimal physical and emotional health.
The Wounded Warriors organizational expertise in physical training and rehabilitation is shared with civilian personal trainers who work with handicapped athletes through conferences,published manuals and online materials. Specialized training in working with physically disabled clients is now offered by some of the accrediting personal training organizations. A telephone call to a local Veterans’ facility or area fitness centers can provide names and contact numbers for experienced personal trainers for disabled clients.