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California Gym Designed by (and for) Veterans in Wheelchairs

Veterans in wheelchairs using exercise equipment

Unique wheelchair accessible exercise facility at VA Palo Alto - designed for outdoor use. Sunshine increases endorphins, which decrease depression, a problem in spinal cord injured patients.

Blogging about a physical therapy success story

man in a wheelchair

The dramatic impact of the exercise facility was poignantly described by Kathleen Darling on her blog. Her husband Cale is a wounded warrior receiving physical therapy at Palo Alto.

“In PT today, Pat (the physical therapist) took Cale outside to check a bunch of exercise weights for people in wheelchairs to use. Some are focused on strength and some are more for range of motion.

“Cale has been so focused on so many other things in his therapy that by the time they are over, he's wiped out, so since we've been here, Cale hadn't touched the wheelchair weights.

“Well, at first, everything was so easy for him because he's come so far with being able to use his arms, but as we kept trying different ones, he got to a couple that he wheeled his wheelchair on, and had to lift his weight. He loved one of them so much. When he started, a huge smile spread across his face and he kept going. Pat asked if he was going to stop and Cale said "No! Keep going!" I asked him if it made him feel like a man and he said ‘Yes!’ He loved it.”

Dr. Thanassi chokes up when trying to describe how successful stories like that makes her feel: “It makes me very happy to come to work in an environment as generous and creative as this one.”

woman standing next to a man in a wheelchair using weightlifting equipment

Dr. Wendy Thanassi, Director of Occupational Health at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, observes a Veteran using wheelchair accessible exercise equipment.

“Most gym equipment is designed for people who can stand and move around. This was created just for us.”

Marine Sergeant J.R. Pierce is a big fan of the unique wheelchair accessible outdoor exercise facility at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Eighteen months after being severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Sergeant Pierce is working out again, from his wheelchair. In an outdoor gym that has room for a wheelchair to roll up under the weight lifting bars.

“The only limit is my imagination and I can imagine just about anything.”

— Veteran Marine Sergeant J.R. Pierce

The specially designed equipment lets Veterans in wheelchairs perform high-impact exercises using distinctive integrated angles and platforms that permit easy access for wheelchairs.

The first-in-the-country gym is tailored especially for Veterans because they had a hand in designing it. It’s been in use since November 2010.

Dr. Wendy Thanassi, Director of Occupational Health at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, came up with the idea and worked with Veterans of all ages and disabilities along with engineers at Triactive America to design the equipment. “It’s so great to have athletics and mental self help come together in one activity. And when people exercise outdoors, they feel better,” she said.

“I worked with Veterans of all ages and disabilities and other wheelchair users, like Dr. Doug Ota, who came up with the treadmill design, and Rod Williams, who works in our lab. The design and implementation was a collaborative and creative process, fully supported by our Director’s office.

“It started with a grant idea I had for an outdoor exercise course on the campus, but I was struggling with how to make it wheelchair accessible. I got the grants to go buy outdoor exercise equipment for wheelchair users and thought I could just go shopping and ‘order it up online’.”

She discovered that very little equipment had been originally designed for wheelchair users.

“When I searched the internet and called around, I found that almost nothing was available and the pieces that were being made were adapted from “regular” equipment, not designed for wheelchair users.

“So I got to work on planning a separate area with separate equipment designed just for wheelchair users. The recreation therapists, facility planner, engineers and physicians who made up our little team donated their talent and their time because we all believe that sunshine and exercise lead to health and happiness.”

Today the innovative exercise pad is being used by wheelchair users ranging from the newly injured to Olympic athletes, and by Veterans aged 20-80.

That famous California sunshine is important to Dr. Thanassi: “We know, scientifically, that sunshine increases endorphins which decrease depression, a problem in the spinal cord injured patients. It also increases happiness.

“Osteoporosis is another problem in the wheelchair user group and we know that sunshine increases vitamin D production and bone strength. Also, weight-lifting increases bone loading and strength.

“I hope one of the outcomes will be more of our guys going to the Paralympics.”

Sergeant Pierce refuses to let his wheelchair keep him down. In fact, he builds muscle by lifting it up in one of the specially designed exercise stations.

For Adrian Hongo, an engineer with Triactive America, working on the project was a labor of love. "It was a great challenge, to do something for these brave men and women. Because it's for life function, I wanted to do a good job," he said.

Hongo describes the goal which came from younger Veteran Sgt. Phillip Malasig who missed one form of exercise more than any other. "Before my accident, I was a big runner. Since then, I had not been able to get cardiovascular exercise," he said.

A wheelchair treadmill was part of the solution.

KGO-TV, San Francisco, featured his treadmill workout as part of a story on the exercise facility.

Hongo's team also designed weight machines with high-speed motions to produce aerobic workouts.

The VA is now hoping to refine the prototypes, and potentially expand the concept to other VA facilities across the country helping Veterans like Sgt. Pierce, who plans to push his physical abilities as far as they will go.

"I'd like to climb Half Dome again. The only limit is my imagination and I can imagine just about anything," he said.

The VA received a $10,000 federal grant to pay for the equipment.

A few other generous gestures helped to make the exercise facility possible.

Freddy Marin’s company, Herrera Engineering, was pouring concrete for the Palo Alto facility’s parking lot and decided to donate a few truck loads of concrete and poured the surface for the exercise pad as a gift from his company. The Palo Alto staff is also grateful to Bay Area businessman Tom Jones and the Sharon Heights Country Club for donating thousands of dollars worth of equipment for the Veterans on their road to recovery.

Related links:
  VA Palo Alto Health Care System