Exercising Safely With Ataxia – Resistance Training

by Bob “Buz” Buzby – reprinted from Exercise To Lose Weight Safely

Safety is always a primary consideration when formulating an exercise regimen. However, if you are living with a physical disability – particularly one that effects coordination and balance – safety needs to be foremost in your fitness routine planning. Obviously, not all disabilities require the same adaptations so you might want to seek professional medical advice when planning your exercise program.

A Little Background

In October 1984, as I was undergoing my annual flight physical it was discovered that I could not stand on one foot with my eyes closed. (The last thing I had to do to be cleared to fly for another year.) Consequently, I was scheduled for a one hour consult at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Ten days later, I was released with the diagnosis of “he best fits into the category of familial spinocerebellar degeneration with associated polyneuropathies.” This diagnosis resulted in my being placed on disability retirement by the Navy.

Although I could no longer pilot a naval aircraft, my symptoms at that time were almost imperceptible. Over the years I progressed from walking normally, to first needing a cane, then a Canadian crutch, and then a rollator walker. About four years ago I developed a rotator cuff impingement which made it difficult for me to use the walker for more than a few minutes at a time, resulting in my purchase of a scooter for going longer distances. The upside of developing the shoulder problem is that I was introduced to resistance training as the primary element of my physical therapy.

Things would be difficult enough if this disease only effected my legs; unfortunately, it effect virtually all of my nerves and voluntary muscles. Probably the most aggravating of my symptoms are my hands’ intention tremors, since they are so unpredictable.

Enough About Me – Let’s Talk About Resistance Training

By definition, resistance training is “any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of increases in strength, tone, mass, and/or endurance.”  [Source: emedicinehealth.com] This broad definition allows for the use of an unbelievably large range of exercises and equipment – far too many to be addressed in one posting. So I will stick to talking about some of the more common forms that can be effectively utilized by someone with coordination and balance issues.

  1. Body Weight Resistance: The average healthy individual can perform a wide range of exercises that utilize their own body weight to provide resistance. Sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, leg-lifts, step-ups, and squat-thrusts are just a some examples body weight resistance exercises. The major advantage of this type of exercise is that, with the exception of pull-ups, no special equipment is needed. I can tell you from personal experience that you need to continually evaluate whether you can still safely perform a particular exercise. For example, I can still safely do leg-lifts and sit-ups; but it is questionable if I could safely mount a chin-up bar and there is no way I could do squat-thrusts or push-ups.
  2. Resistance Bands: Also called exercise tubes, these are a very cost-effective means of building strength and lean muscle. I highly recommend that, if you are not working with a trainer or physical therapist, that when you buy your bands you also purchase a manual with good instructions and illustrations on how to properly perform resistance band exercises. Failure to do so may result in injury.
  3. Hand Weights/Dumbbells: Although there are many ways to employ weights in resistance training, I would like to address a couple things that someone with ataxia should consider about using weights. First,  I can personally confirm that using hand-weights while standing does help with balance issues. However, for me, there came a time when it became too risky for me to use them while standing. Fortunately, I can still safely use them weights from a seated position.
  4. Resistance Chair: I highly recommend the Resistance Chair Exercise System by VQ ActionCare for both seniors and people with certain types of disabilities. I bought one about four years ago; and, although I cannot safely utilize all the chair’s features, I credit it with helping my recovery from a rotator cuff impingement and continue to use it on a regular basis.
  5. Home Gyms: For many folks with early-stage ataxia a home gym may be a good option. However, I am reluctant to recommend the use of a home gym for someone with advanced ataxia. If you think you can still use a home gym, be sure you try-before-you-buy and that you work with a physical trainer or therapist to design a safe and effective exercise routine.

More About the Author

Bob is the husband of Cindy Buzby, owner of this blog and founder and owner of CBee Marketing. Bob voluntarily serves as the webmaster for Cindy’s websites (Cindy is severely computer-phobic). Cindy recently purchased the domain name LivingWithAtaxia.net, which will serve as a forum for people with ataxia and related diseases to discuss how they are coping with their ever-changing symptoms. We are currently seeking both inspirational and medically significant articles for posting on that site. If you want to contribute articles to this project, please email your submissions to contact@LivingWithAtaxia.net using the subject “Ataxia article submission”. Also, be sure to state that we have your permission to publish your article on the site.

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