No matter how old or out of shape you think you are, it is never too late to add more physical activity to your life. Exercise is important for everyone, especially for people with disabilities. Regular and consistent exercise can:
- Help you control your weight. Along with healthy diet, exercise plays an important role in preventing obesity.
- Reduce your risk of heart diseases. Exercise strengthens the heart, improves circulation and can lower blood pressure.
- Improve your mental health and mood. During exercise, the body releases chemicals that can help you handle stress and reduce the risk of depression.
- Strengthen your bones and muscles. Weight-bearing activities can help increase and maintain muscle mass while slowing the loss of bone density that naturally comes with age.
- Reduce your risk of some cancers, including colon, breast, uterine and lung cancer.
Experts say these benefits apply regardless of ability or skill level and staying active can be even more critical for people with disabilities. Adaptive sports — activities modified for people with disabilities — provide improved physical and mental well-being, as well as increased independence, purpose and social interaction.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “Recent studies indicate that disabled veterans who participate in adaptive sports report benefits such as: Less stress, reduced dependency on pain and depression medication, fewer secondary medical conditions, higher achievement in education and employment, and more independence.”
Paralyzed Veterans of America, a service organization that advocates for veterans who have experienced a spinal cord injury or disease such as MS or ALS, says adaptive sports are often game changers for their members, helping them through rehabilitation and improving their quality of life.
PVA and the Department of Veterans Affairs co-present the largest annual multi-sport wheelchair event in the world, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. This year marks the 39th anniversary of the Wheelchair Games and more than 600 athletes will compete in 19 sporting events over six days in Louisville, Kentucky.
All participating athletes are U.S. military veterans who use wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries, MS, ALS, certain neurological conditions, amputations or other mobility impairments. Kenneth Lee, M.D., director of the Milwaukee VA Spinal Cord Injury Center and a combat-injured Army veteran, is the medical director of the Wheelchair Games. Lee says adaptive bike riding was key to his own difficult recovery after being injured in Iraq in 2004. It took him years to overcome the effects of an open head wound and shrapnel injuries to his legs.
Lee explains that sports tap into the natural competitive spirit and speed healing, physically and mentally. “Participating in adaptive sports gives patients a feeling of inclusion. They compete in new ways and you can see their confidence come to life,” he says. “When athletes go to the Wheelchair Games, they go home different, feeling like they can work through other barriers in their everyday lives,” he adds.
Adaptive sports do not alter the sports that able-bodied athletes play but simply allow modifications to fit the needs of the athletes with disabilities. This ensures adapted athletes are playing and competing on par with able-bodied athletes.
Army veteran Jennifer Steele says, “Sports really made me feel alive again!” Steele, 38, served as a sergeant on a patriot missile crew for five months at the beginning of the Iraq War. During her service, she started having difficulty running and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and given a medical discharge. It took years for her to work through the anger and depression that followed.
She still chokes up when she recalls the first time she played wheelchair softball. “It was like getting a part of myself back that I thought I had lost forever,” Steele says. This year, Steele is preparing to compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games for the third time.
Paralyzed Veterans of America has year-round adaptive sporting events across the country for individuals with disabilities, including people with amputation, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and neurological disorders such as MS or ALS. Learn more at pva.org/sports.
The power of physical exercise can help us all overcome hardships and challenges to improve our lives. A few small changes to your daily habits to make exercise a part of your regular routine can bring all of these benefits into your life as well.