Keeping physically fit despite disability

  • Using an elastic resistance exercise band is one of the ways Graves keeps fit during the winter months. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Graves rides this three-wheeled handcycle in good weather. In the winter months she continues to benefit from it by putting it on a trainer in the lower level of her Pelham home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ginny Graves demonstrates the pedal action and gearing on a three-wheeled handcycle that she uses on a trainer in her Pelham home during the winter months — though on the day this photo was taken a brace on her leg prevented her from climbing aboard. Behind her is her husband, Bob Graves. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Using free weights is of one the ways Ginny Graves of Pelham, whose legs are paralyzed, keeps fit during the winter months. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ginny Graves of Pelham rides this three-wheeled handcycle in good weather and in the winter months she continues to benefit by putting it on a trainer in the lower level of her Pelham home — though on the day this photo was taken a brace on her leg prevented her from climbing aboard. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2017 5:33:29 PM

Even though her legs are paralyzed from a spinal cord injury, Ginny Graves of Pelham won’t let that stop her from staying fit during the winter months — or any time of year for that matter.

Graves, 70, uses a stationary recumbent trike in the basement of her home, and instead of pedaling with her feet, she pushes and pulls hand bars to spin the big front wheel, which gets her heart rate pumping and keeps her arm muscles toned.

“When you are paralyzed it is all about arm motions,” she said. “Fitness wise, there is no reason why somebody cannot exercise in their home.”

Graves says she has always loved outdoor activities. Before she was injured in a skiing accident over 10 years ago, she enjoyed hiking and biking, and would often walk for miles in the woods every day. In the years that followed her accident, she discovered that thanks to a little bit of creativity and technical innovation in the world of adaptive sports, she doesn’t have to give up many of the activities that brought her joy.

Graves has gone cross country skiing in a chair mounted on skis and used poles to propel herself forward. When she wants to get out on the trail for a bike ride, the stationary recumbent trike she keeps in the basement, which is mounted on a training roller, comes free. She also recently purchased an all-terrain wheelchair, which she is looking forward to wheeling up trails to build up her endurance in the spring.

Sometimes, after a snow storm, just to get outside, she’ll wheel herself out to her deck to shovel it off.

When she doesn’t feel like facing the cold, there is always lifting hand weights or even using her own body weight to work her arm muscles by lifting herself up from her chair.

“Exercise, for me, was always fun because I did what I wanted to do,” she said. “I would go through the woods and I would see something new every day or hear something new.”

Building strength

Fitness is important for everyone, but exercise is especially important for people with physical disabilities, a population which has a higher rate of obesity than the general public as a result of low activity, according to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The journal suggests that disabled people’s impairments are compounded by the fact that fewer fitness programs are targeted at them. Obesity affects up to 31 percent of disabled people compared with only 19 percent of the general population, the journal says.

Staying active, aside from providing the mood-boosting psychological benefits of getting out and having fun, also builds strength, which for people with physical impairments, like paralysis or muscular dystrophy, helps prevent injuries, said Ross Bell, a physical therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Ross say he often recommends that his patients work on strengthening the upper back and rotator cuffs by using weights and hand cycles like the one Graves uses.

“If you are not using the muscles and you are not stretching appropriately, you are prone to get some rotator cuff injuries,” he said. “If you don’t use it, you loose it.” And that, he says, can happen quickly.

Patients can buy handcycles online or they can find them at some area gyms, like the Hampshire Regional YMCA in Northampton, he says.

Fitness opportunities

Some people also find that wheeling themselves around the mall in the winter months is a good way to escape the cold and keep up their cardiovascular fitness.

Adjustments are made in classes at some area gyms to include those with physical impairments. Graves sometimes goes to a strength training class at the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst, where the teacher makes modifications so that she may participate.

Other classes, like the aquatic and aerobic courses, also can include people in wheelchairs and with other physical impairments, said the club’s manager Len Haggerty. 

Some community centers, likes the Northampton Senior Center, offer gentle chair yoga. The classes focus on light breathing and stretching, all performed while seated.

Those seeking something more rigorous can join a sled hockey team, an adaptive form of ice hockey for people with lower body impairments, which meets at The Amelia Park Arena in Westfield.

Throughout the months of January and February, there are also snowmobile rides and adaptive skiing in Wendell State Forest provided by All Out Adventures, an organization, which in conjunction with the state’s Universal Access Program, provides outdoor recreation for people with disabilities.

“I certainly have found these programs to be helpful,” said Graves.


After her skiing accident, Graves spent six months in a rehab facility and then spent another year in physical therapy trying to rebuild her strength and relearn how to do the activities she loved.

When kayaking she had to get used to relying on another person to always be there to help her get in and out of the boat. She had to adjust to unexpected moments, like not being able to find an accessible bathroom when on a bike trail or having trouble stabilizing herself on hilly paths. When she gets a flat tire, she can’t fix it herself.

“It’s not easy when you are in a wheelchair and can’t stand,” she said.

Gradually, over time, she has discovered a new sense of independence through outdoor activities.

“When I’m cycling it feels very freeing because I am doing something with other people who are not disabled,” she said. “I can bike with my family, I can go on some trails.”

Her favorite places to cycle are the Norwottuck Trail going out to Leeds. She also loves the path along the canal in Turners Falls. She’s made it out to bike trails on Cape Cod and in New Hampshire.

“(These activities) allow me to do things with other people or by myself that are active and hopefully improve my strength or endurance,” she said.

“I like knowing that I am trying to keep my body healthy and strong — doing these activities makes me feel like I am maintaining my body the best I can.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at


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