I wrote this about a year ago for a friend but I think that now is the perfect time to publish it! This was also pre-exosym so I want you to know that you can still take on athletics without special aid, I did for many years! This week, I am gradually getting back into the gym after being our of the country for several months –so I am taking much of my own advice here. I don’t like to feel weak and out of shape but luckily I know exactly what to do to get to where I want to be. Please let me know if I can help further with your health & fitness related goals!
When I think of descriptive phrases like “physical fitness” being “in-shape” or “athletic” I do not think of “cerebral palsy” and “disability.” Yet I have chosen a lifestyle that allows those words to be synonymous.
With left hemiplegic cerebral palsy, I have trained my body to be more capable and stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I strength train (use weights & resistance) or do some form of cardio nearly every day because it is my all-encompassing therapy. Yes, I could always do more stretching but exercise has taught me so much about my body and its capacity for change. I feel lucky that I have CP in the way that it has forced me to have an intimate relationship with struggle, discomfort, and even pain. Others around me might never understand what I mean by that and that’s okay. I often choose to talk about “myself” separate from “my body” because it helps me identify with having a physical disability; having to constantly adapt the way I move to my environment. Exercising with CP is more or less: adapt or fail—but regroup, get up, go again. When it comes to working out, failure is NOT a bad word—in my experience, it shows that I’ve tried and I am willing to push myself well into my physical limitations. When I reach the point of failure, I know my body is getting stronger and my muscles are working hard.
Working out with cerebral palsy or any physical condition is not easy and it is not for everybody. It takes a lot of patience, effort, & dedication to do the things your body REALLY does not want to do. But if you want to, you can do it– I promise.
Start slow, do each exercise with intention:
If you’re anything like me, you might want to go ahead and try to knock out 10 push-ups or lunges with 20 lb. dumbbells but you need to get out of that “I can do what everyone else can do” headspace for just a second. Yes, I have no doubt you are tough and a total badass but you DO have CP and that means you DO have to take care of your body more than most. Instead, perform small sets with few repetitions—familiarize your body with simple movements even if you can easily execute them without difficulty. Ex) 3 pushups modified to your knees, 5 lunges holding onto a pole, 10 situps/ repeat this circuit 3x
Listen to your body:
If something hurts, STOP! And then figure out why and what you can do to adapt the movement to suit your style. Never force an exercise, this is how injuries happen and I hate to break it to you, but with CP you are more susceptible to injury AND your body takes longer to recover! You may need to modify certain exercises depending on your balance, coordination ect.–that’s totally okay! Tip: Warm up 5-10 min on bike, elliptical, rower before you start any strength training. If you’re not in a gym: go for a walk, do some jumping jacks (however gracefully!) Stretch & cool down after ANY form of exercise.
Isolate muscle groups:
You need to train your body to stop over compensating for your weak spots and start activating your entire body! This will decrease the risk of many health issues as you age. Depending on your CP, you’ll notice it’s harder to complete any movement on one side or half of your body (generally). Dedicate specific movements to activate your atrophied muscle groups. Force your body to respond to what you want it to do! Ex) Perform a one legged leg press and keep the weight the same for both legs despite differences in strength ability. Use dumbbells or resistance band for same effect on upper body muscle groups. This helps “even out” muscle tone, aesthetic appearance, and strength levels. *Use your brace, aid or anything that helps you stabilize each movement. The sooner you work on correcting your body’s natural tendencies, the better.
You have nothing to prove to anyone (but yourself):
I mean that. Often, I’ve gotten discouraged because I couldn’t keep up with my mega fit family on a hike or do as many reps of an exercise as I intended to do but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what or how I do things as long as I feel good and strong. Goal setting is a great motivational tool but don’t beat yourself up if every work out is not 100% fantastic because it won’t be. You are already doing more than the average human being by just living and functioning with CP—let alone being active!
To me, working out is a personal sport. I love feeling strong and in control of my health. I am only competing with myself and I am in charge of the effort that I put in each day. It is messy, sweaty and at times, unforgiving but it is important to own that and empower yourself when you have nothing left! You will accomplish your goals if you stay focused and trust the process. I have been thinking these past few weeks what kind of athlete I consider myself, and I believe adaptive athlete is a phrase I identify best with because it encompasses all that I am and strive to be!
Let me tell you that while it is not easy, it is possible to move past discomfort and enjoy the transformative nature of exercise—you are literally altering your body composition each time you strength train, you are defying the effects of CP on your body—challenging your brain to work WITH your body, not against it. How cool is that?