By: Pam Dickens
|Image of two women on a path near a wooded area, one woman is walking while the other uses a wheelchair|
I'm a person who never thought a lot about physical activity, even though I led a fairly active life; vacuuming the house, painting rooms, cleaning gutters, raking the yard, gardening, or walking the dog. I wasn't an athlete; I walked with a cane and did not consider myself that active, since I did not participate in sports. I didn't try formalized exercise activities, but instead incorporated physical activity into my daily life.
Then, 2 years ago, my life changed dramatically. I experienced a spinal cord injury and now use a manual wheelchair to get around. For about a year, I lay on the bed, slept a lot, and grieved over my many losses. I missed those things that I could no longer do. My physical activity was nil. The things I used to do that required physical activity were suddenly too difficult. The little physical activity I did get consisted of wheeling from one room to the next in my home. Even this task was difficult, especially rolling on the carpet. I could barely get over the threshold to enter my front door. I was tired most of the time.
After about a year, with my doctor's encouragement to get some physical activity and a good friend's invitation and support, I began wheeling with my friend Ruth on the American Tobacco Trail, a 22+-mile rails-to-trails project in Durham, North Carolina. The American Tobacco Trail project currently runs about 8 miles south on a paved trail through the City of Durham to its current end in Chapel Hill, near Highway 40, a designated portion of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,600-mile 'Urban Appalachian Trail' connecting cities from Maine to Florida. The trail is great for wheeling, with a smooth, paved surface and no major inclines.
On a November day, Ruth and I began our first simple trek, going about a mile on the trail with her walking beside me. We slowly increased our distance every few visits to the trail. Mostly due to Ruth's commitment, we faithfully went to the trail 2 or 3 times each week; week after week, even when it was snowing. I often felt too tired to go, but Ruth kindly encouraged and pushed me, even when I was napping in the car when she arrived! I somehow made myself go with her every time and often discovered that I was less tired at the end of the walk than before. The wheeling became easier and easier and energizing. Being an outdoors person at heart, I began to appreciate all of nature, which had passed me by for over a year. The bluebirds, chorus frogs, cardinals and wrens, climbing kudzu and wisteria, the unknown trees to identify, the painted turtles sunning themselves on the creek's rocks; I became aware of all these many wonders and more. I began enjoying the trail trips; not just for the exercise, but also for the camaraderie with Ruth and being with nature again.
Over 8 months, our distance increased from 1 mile to 8 miles, with Ruth now jogging beside me, rather than walking. We began timing ourselves, trying to go faster and push ourselves a little harder. We worked so hard and produced so much body heat at times that we sometimes took off our coats on a cold winter day. On the trail, I felt free and more capable than I had felt in a long time. I could not have accomplished this even when I was walking with the cane.
We heard about an upcoming event, 'Race for the Cure,' to occur in early June in our area. Ruth and I decided to do this together and signed up. We went to the race site a few weeks before the event to try out the path and ease my mind about access issues. Ruth and I proudly completed the NC Triangle Affiliate Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure on June 11. I felt so energized and proud.
Ruth has recently moved away and I miss her company on the trail. I have kept motivated about getting physical activity. I've met a new friend, Dennis, who uses a wheelchair. He now joins me on the trail twice a week. Other friends join me on days that fit into our schedules. The 8 miles is no longer difficult for me. I've nearly worn out the tread on my tires. I'm now working to increase my distance and difficulty and get a 'high' when I do the trail: my body feels its best when I'm working hard. Overall, I'm feeling better than two years ago, thanks a lot to the physical activity. I'm stronger, my breathing is deeper, I have more energy, and my mental state is more positive. Friends tell me I look better; I've gotten a little tan while wheeling on the trails, not to mention the larger muscles in my arms and shoulders. Some call it 'buff.'
I'm so encouraged with the positive effects from my physical activity that I recently inherited a used hand cycle from a colleague. I am having it refurbished to try out a new way to get some physical activity and use some different arm muscles. I've already met two people on the trail that ride hand cycles and have obtained their contact information to connect with them when I'm ready to join them on a ride.
I appreciate all who have encouraged me to get going and those who have supported me to keep going the past year. Of course, NCHPAD has been an invaluable inspiration and support through this journey with its numerous resources, information, and strategies; not to mention personal encouragement. From experience, I've learned a few things that helped me to get physical activity in my life: 1) Do it, even when you don't feel like it. It's so tempting to stay lying on the bed. After you do it, you usually feel better. 2) Surround yourself with people who can provide encouragement. My friends and doctors are inspirational and sometimes even pushy when I need it! 3) Exercise with a buddy. This gives me the opportunity to regain some of my social connections and make new ones but also makes me accountable to be on the trail at the time and date I have planned. It's harder to back out. 4) Choose something physically active that is fun for you. I have learned that my love of nature and outdoors draws me to the trail. Plus, my visits with friends are added bonuses that make the physical activity a social activity rather than only an exercise event.
I encourage anyone with a disability to add physical activity into your life, if you have not already done so. It can make a positive difference and contribute to your well-being. If you need help with ideas, contact NCPAD, your local Parks and Recreation Department, or YMCA for a start. Whether it is a social opportunity, a way to be outdoors, a way to be alone, a way to compete, a way to manage your weight; whatever works for you, I know if I can do this, you can, too. Good luck.