Participants in wheelchairs say the routines give them the strength to better perform everyday tasks as well as boosting their self-esteem.
CrossFit classes of the future could be more inclusive, thanks to a new pilot program at Orlando Health.
The program, funded by the Craig Neilsen Foundation, helps people with spinal cord injuries adapt to daily life using functional fitness training in traditional CrossFit classes.
“We have a really interesting continuum of care for our spinal cord injury population as they come through Orlando Health,” Andrea Cooper, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the Florida-based company, told Healthline.
“When they’re done with their inpatient care and outpatient care, we wanted to focus on where these individuals can continue working on their health and physical activity outside of a rehab setting,” she said.
Under the program, CrossFit trainers are educated on the unique needs of the spinal cord injury population so they can modify workouts in such a way that helps with daily tasks such as getting in and out of vehicles and lifting wheelchairs.
Cooper says that while the exercises may be modified, the adaptive athletes are given the same expectations as everyone else.
Cooper said the adaptive athletes do a lot of different types of physical activities, including endurance work and weight training called Olympic Lifts.
C.J. Bellamy, an adaptive athlete who’s in a wheelchair after being shot in his shoulder in 2006, has been going to the CrossFit classes since last summer.
Bellamy told Healthline he got into the classes because he was looking for a different kind of workout that was more adapted to him being in a wheelchair.
“It helps more because they can focus on more of the things we need to do on a daily basis because they have more of the proper equipment, and they’re more-so kind of hands-on trained now on how to handle certain individuals being in a wheelchair adaptive classes now,” he said.
Bellamy added the class structure is flexible.
“Everything we ask for they pretty much jump right to it,” he said.
David Kellam, an adaptive athlete in a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident in college, agreed.
“Say we go online and look at some difficult workout, if we brought it back to them, they would just jump right into it and have no issue implementing it into our workout or giving that workout on its own by itself,” Kellam told Healthline.
“There’s only a few things we can do, but we also can do things differently so they have no issue trying to figure out how and what we can do,” Kellam added.
Kellam says these adaptive CrossFit classes are more fun than just working out alone.
For adaptive athletes, doing CrossFit classes is a bit like a family affair.
“Everyone is always very positive and always trying to help you get better,” said Kellam.
It’s this sense of inclusion that both Kellam and Bellamy say keeps them committed to attending regular classes.
“They welcome us as one of their own since we started,” Bellamy said. “You know, they give us their respect, you know nobody disrespects us or talks nonsense about us.”
Cooper explains this sense of inclusion was intentional from the program’s inception.
“What’s really cool about this is they wanted to focus on inclusion,” she said. “This was not separate. They wanted to provide an opportunity of inclusion to bring in seated athletes and able-bodied athletes in one area doing the same thing.”
The result has been positive.
“Honestly, what you see, you see this warm and welcoming nature. And everyone, they work together as a team and as a community. It’s actually extremely motivating for people,” said Cooper.
“They all jump in and support each other. They’re all cheering each other on — everybody — not just the seated athletes and not just the able-bodied athletes. It’s a true family and a community there,” she added.
The benefits of these adaptive CrossFit classes are numerous.
For one, the adaptive athletes are able to regain a sense of independence.
“One of our athletes is able to get in and out of their pool independently, where he had previously required help. Now he feels strong enough and more independent in his abilities to do those things,” Cooper said.
For Bellamy, attending classes means he has more stamina in day-to-day activities.
“I feel like it allowed us to get a little bit faster with our transfers in and out and it’s not as annoying as it was before — because it’s annoying putting your chair in and out of the car because your arms get tired and things like that — but now the stamina and things like that have made it a lot easier,” he said.
He noted that when he first got injured, it would take him three minutes to get to his car. Now? It takes just one. For someone who gets in and out of his car “everyday, all day, pretty much,” this is a major benefit.
Cooper added that on top of physical gains, the regular exercise helps improve self-esteem and reduce depression and secondary health issues that affect the spinal cord injury population such as diabetes, heart conditions, and obesity.
While the adaptive CrossFit class is currently only available for select adaptive athlete participants at Orlando Health, the team is pushing for more funding to expand.
“We’re looking at other gyms. We’re looking at more training. We’re looking at extended memberships. We’re looking at more participants,” Cooper said.
“We saw that it was extremely impactful for these athletes lives and so we want to keep doing it for more people,” she said. “We may not just limit to spinal cord injuries.”
Cooper said that in the future these classes may include people with traumatic brain injuries and other ailments.