Orlando Health’s Rehabilitation Team integrates patients with spinal cord injuries into a local gym following traditional rehabilitation, using adaptive fitness equipment and environment.
Through an innovative new program pioneered by Orlando Health’s rehabilitation team and South Orange CrossFit (SOCF), former patients paralyzed with spinal cord injuries are pumping iron and participating in classes alongside other fitness enthusiasts. Approximately 50 patients are diagnosed with traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) each year at Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC). While not all patients currently participate in the year-old program, the gym fills a void for those who do.
In the rehabilitation program, ORMC provides comprehensive care to help patients regain their physical and emotional strength and independence. However, after many graduate from rehab and return home to their community, their health stagnates or declines.
“We noticed once our SCI patients graduated from our rehab program, there weren’t any exercise programs or fitness centers with adaptive equipment accessible to this population to help them continue building their strength,” Erin Jones, rehabilitation educator at Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute, said.
So Orlando Health decided to create its own, applying for and receiving the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s “Creating Opportunities for Independence” grant. The $53,000 grant financed adaptive exercise equipment, training and memberships for up to 15 SCI participants to continue their post-rehab fitness routine at a local gym.
Once funded, the search began for a fitness partner. “Corporate gyms could only promise us a corner for our equipment,” said Lauren Vagelakos, senior grant manager at Orlando Health Foundation. “We wanted our patients integrated into the gym community, not off in a corner by themselves. That’s hard to find.”
At SOCF, co-owners Robert Zambrana and Guillermo Reyes were receptive to creating an adaptive, immersive experience. “My partner is deaf, so he understands wanting to be treated like everyone else,” said Reyes. “This seemed like a good fit for us.”
Adaptive athletes have special needs. Some do not have good core strength. Others cannot grip or need help transferring from their wheelchairs. Equipment must be spaced so wheelchairs can better access the machines. Pullup bars must be adjusted. Bands and adaptive gloves may be necessary. While some gym equipment is specially designed for adaptive use, all machines can be modified.
Gaining strength from working out enables SCI patients to better perform daily tasks like getting on the bus or transferring from their wheelchair. It also helps with quality of life.
At SOCF, every member is treated as an athlete pursuing a healthier life, regardless of their mobility. “When other members see our adaptive athletes working out, it drives home the meaning of ‘No Excuses’,” said Reyes.
The partnership with SOCF has extended Orlando Health’s reach beyond the hospital walls, providing patients with much more than just a typical gym membership. One individual now has the strength to walk 25 steps with leg braces and has enrolled in college. Orlando Health also sponsors several athletes who compete in strength training competitions across the state and country. While the grant dollars have ended, Orlando Health is looking to bring the program to other Cross-Fit gyms and expand into the adolescent population.