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Exercise Safely After Acquired Brain Injury

Your brain controls virtually every function of your body. When the brain experiences an injury, it can affect everything from the way you think, speak and feel, to the way you move.

Physical activity plays a vital part in long-term recovery from brain injuries, but the changes that come with them can make traditional gym settings challenging, potentially increasing your risk for injury.

Marie Simeo, PT, MS, a certified neuro-developmental therapist and clinical coordinator for the OhioHealth Outpatient Neurological Rehabilitation program, explains how specialized fitness programs can give people the support and self-confidence to succeed.

Doctor reviewing a brain scan

What is an acquired brain injury?

“Acquired brain injury, or ABI, is an injury to the brain that occurs after birth and is not linked to a degenerative disorder, like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease,” says Simeo. “The acquired brain injury most people are familiar with is stroke. Brain tumors and anoxia, which is caused by a lack of oxygen, are other types. Brain tumors are another type. And then there are traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, which are caused by impacts or blows to the head.”

Depending on how an injury affects the brain, Simeo says a person can experience a myriad of symptoms. “These can be physical, like arm or leg weakness, or problems with movement or balance. In addition to physical changes, some people may experience cognitive, emotional or behavioral changes. Others may have difficulty speaking or understanding language. Any of these changes may make it difficult for a person to walk, live independently or complete activities of daily living. It’s actually quite a diverse population.”

Man exercising with dumbbell with help from a physical therapist

What challenges to people with ABI face in regard to physical fitness?

Simeo says people recovering from brain injury often find conventional fitness centers to be challenging and intimidating. “These individuals don’t always feel safe or comfortable in a community gym. Physical or other changes after brain injury may restrict the type of exercises they can perform, classes they can participate in or exercise equipment they can access. Personal trainers at conventional fitness centers often do not understand the unique physical symptoms people with acquired brain injury may experience, the types of exercises that would be best for them, or how to modify routines or equipment to avoid injury.”

She suggests finding a program that recognizes and meets the specific needs of people with brain injuries, like the fitness programs developed by the Upper Arlington Neurological Rehabilitation Program in collaboration with OhioHealth McConnell Heart Health Center. Simeo works with a team of physical therapists and exercise physiologists that provides specialized support to people recovering from brain injury. “In 2011, we started our first stroke fitness program, offering stroke survivors the opportunity for continued cardiovascular and strength training. Since that time, we expanded the program to include all acquired brain injury diagnoses and have added new classes to better meet the needs of this diverse population. What is unique about our programs is the expertise of our instructors. They understand the fitness needs of people with brain injury and teach clients how to exercise safely and independently.”

Woman stretching with help from a physical therapist

Why should I seek out a specialized brain injury fitness program?

“After brain injury, the sooner you can start a rehabilitation program, the better,” says Simeo. “If you don’t have a recovery plan, you can experience a decline in strength, endurance and function that can lead to other issues. It’s still possible to make progress if you wait, but the further you get from your injury, the slower your recovery can be.”

Simeo says the OhioHealth program blends physical therapy with skills therapy and occupational therapy. “Our program is a wonderful collaboration between our physical therapists, exercise physiologists and neurological experts. We design each patient’s program to accommodate their physical, visual and cognitive limitations. We want to make sure they have the opportunity to work with people who understand them, who are familiar with their experiences, their medications and other therapies. We are finding that if we offer this experience, our patients feel safer and more capable of transitioning to a neighborhood gym as a next step.”

She also emphasizes the encouragement patients in programs like these feel when they’re working out alongside people who share their experiences. “The socialization and interaction has been one of the major benefits. The camaraderie and support among the group is fantastic.”

Learn more about the outpatient rehabilitation at OhioHealth program and the OhioHealth McConnell Heart Health Center.

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