Belgium’s Marc Herremans and the USA’s Brooke Thabit live on different continents, but as spinal cord injury patients they share a strong dedication to physical training. In the first of two interviews, they explain why physical therapy and training is so vital to those with paralysis.
So Marc and Brooke, why is working the upper body so critical for people with spinal cord injury?
BT: Living in a wheelchair, your upper body is your everything. Right now my arms are my legs. So the stronger you are, the more independence there is.
MH: Exactly. You have to try to do as much as you can on your own, so one of the big reasons for training the upper body is that you have to make transfers: from your chair to a car, from your chair to the bed, to the bath and so on. If you have a strong upper body the transfer is better, which means your life quality is better. It’s really important to get the power to do all those transfers.
"Living in a wheelchair, your upper body is your everything. The stronger you are, the more independence there is." –Brooke Thabit
What else does training help with?
MH: When you do training for the upper body, you increase blood circulation for the whole body, which helps your bones, your skin, your muscles. Training and exercise are really, really important in order to stay healthy and to be able to stay off medication.
BT: And of course it all depends on your injury level. For some people training might initially be about getting off a ventilator and breathing independently.
How often do you train?
BT: I have one-on-one training with a therapist (sometimes more than one) for two hours at a time, and depending on my schedule I go three, four or sometimes five days a week.
MH: I’ve been working out seven days a week for 14 years, since just after my injury in 2002.
What kinds of things are involved in training the upper body?
BT: Again it depends on the injury. For me, from the collarbone down my feeling cuts out. I can move my arms now but not my hands, and I am considered quadriplegic. For me, it’s different every day: for example, modified handstand pushups, weights and barbells, and pulling myself into a standing position. It’s rare to do a workout that focuses on only the upper body or lower body because they go together – if I’m lifting a weight, my therapist will have me sitting on a ball so I have to focus on balancing at the same time.
MH: In my case, the spinal injury was a little bit lower and I can use my arms and my hands. So I do training with a hand bike, pull-ups, swinging myself – just about everything a person can do with the upper body is possible, so I do as much variation as I can.
"I’ve been working out seven days a week for 14 years, since just after my injury." –Marc Herremans
Have you seen improvements and benefits since you started training?
BT: The stronger you get, the more you can do. In general when I started couldn't move my arms at all, and I had to train just to brush my teeth by myself. Now I’ve regained almost all movement of my arms and can push a manual chair. I’m even going to start learning to drive soon!
MH: When you have an injury like this, in the beginning it’s like you’re born in a new life. I came from almost being the Ironman world champion to suddenly having to learn everything all over again. Fourteen years ago I had to learn to wash myself, and now I give my kids their baths and put them in bed. [Editor’s note: Four years after his accident, Marc did win the Ironman World Championship for the disabled category.]
"The stronger you get, the more you can do." –Brooke Thabit
Just one more question: Both of you were athletic before your injuries. Marc, as you touched on, you were one of the top triathletes in the world, and Brooke, you were a surfer. So training has always been part of your lives. But can everyday non-athletes who incur a spinal cord injury really benefit from physical training?
BT: Absolutely. After I got hurt, I certainly wasn’t strong. Anybody can do this in a way that makes sense for their own injury – it’s never too late and it’s so important. It will only benefit you.
MH: I’m a coach myself now, and when I’m working with someone with spinal cord injury I explain that when you train, you’re investing in your life quality. When you don't exercise, you get in mental and physical debt – you get health problems, and then you have to take medication and you feel mentally down. When you’re healthy, it's good for your life quality in the short term, and then if a solution comes – and I believe it will – you’ll be ready for it.
Your efforts can help researchers find that solution! Learn more.