Atlanta, GA,
09:05 AM

Here’s How to Stay Active While Practicing Social Distancing

Shepherd Center fitness expert discusses how to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic if you use a wheelchair or have special needs.

Prioritizing fitness in our day-to-day lives is critical for our physical health, as well as our psychological wellbeing. As we face unprecedented challenges during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Lisa Eagen, BS, ACSM-CPT, lead exercise physiologist in Shepherd Center's ProMotion Fitness Center*, provides tips and advice for staying active, healthy and content.

What is your primary role at Shepherd Center? How do you help our patients?
I am the lead exercise physiologist for the ProMotion Fitness Center. My primary role is to address patients’ recreation therapy exercise goals and interests. We do this through many avenues:

  • Education on the benefits of exercise.
  • Education on the barriers to physical activity and their solutions.
  • Introduction to adaptive equipment and how patients can make exercises adaptive through things like grasping cuffs, lifting hooks, trunk supports, etc.
  • Prepare patients for their transition back home. This includes finding a local gym (once they reopen after the pandemic) that may have the equipment they need, recommending home exercise programs and equipment, and encouraging creativity in figuring out a way to exercise and move daily.
  • Empower patients through education, repetition and open dialogue so they may continue on with a healthy life.

This is a tough time for a lot of people having to stay indoors and socially distanced. Why is it important for people to prioritize physical activity right now?
Of all the things that are going on, physical activity is one of the things we can control. It can be easy to fall into the fear of the unknown right now, but if you choose to make exercise a priority, you will keep yourself ahead of the game. As an added bonus, as you become more active, your psychological health will improve and vice versa.

Are there reasons that staying active is especially critical for people who use wheelchairs or have other special needs during this time of self-isolation?
Those with a disease and/or disability have a system that is already compromised, thus making them more susceptible to illnesses. These individuals are also at risk for secondary complications, including wounds, pressure sores, spasticity, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal complications, urological complications and blood clots, among other things. Being as healthy as possible is one of the best ways to prevent these complications. We can enhance our health through better cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility – all of which are addressed with physical activity.

Many gyms are closed right now, and a lot of people don’t have access to gym equipment at home. What are the top five tips you have for people who use wheelchairs or have other special needs to stay active without any special gear?

  1. First, figure out what makes you happy. Whether it’s music, going outdoors, dancing, video games or exercise classes, you can develop a workout around it.
  2. Use social media. There are a lot of great videos on YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms of people being creative with their workouts. Also, check out the Exercise for People with SCI playlist on Shepherd Center’s YouTube page. These exercises are not just for those who have sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI).
  3. Keep an open mind. Being creative and flexible is key, along with being non-judgmental. If you want to sing at the top of your lungs and dance in your wheelchair (of course, safely), then do it!
  4. As long as you are following the CDC guidelines of social distancing and finding a safe place, go outside. Your deck, yard, driveway and sidewalks are all options. Remember to check the pollen count first, as air quality can wreak havoc on someone with a compromised respiratory system.
  5. Stay connected with your peers, therapists, friends and family with technology such as Facetime, Skype, Zoom, etc. Having a sense of belonging is key to our psychological health. You are more likely to follow through with your fitness goals if you are held accountable for telling someone about your progress.

Are there things around the house that can be used in place of standard gym equipment?
The options are limitless. Get creative! Here are some items you can try out depending on the type of exercise you are doing: laundry detergent bottle with a handle, pots and pans, pillows, cushions, water bottles, books, shopping bags (can add items to bags for weight), tables, chairs, couches, walls, brooms, countertops, bags of dirt or mulch (if you are outside), sheets, pillowcases and sports equipment to mimic sport-specific movements.

How important is setting a routine while people are self-isolating at home? Does setting a routine help with sticking to fitness commitments?
Having structure is key for most everyone. Achieving any wins, whether they are large or small, can provide a sense of accomplishment, pride and motivation. This applies to fitness routines, as well. If we don’t take advantage of the things we can control, like sticking to a fitness routine, we can easily fall into a spiral of depression, bad habits and making bad choices that will hurt us in the long run.

How do you recommend people stay motivated to prioritize their fitness during this challenging time?

  • Take one thing at a time. Try not to overload your day by accomplishing everything at once.
  • Make things fun. There is no perfect formula for a great workout, so do things that make you feel good and bring a little humor to life.
  • Communicate with friends, peers, family and therapists. Compare workouts, throw around ideas with each other and create challenges.
  • We offer an open line of communication, so we are always available for advice. You can visit the ProMotion Fitness Center page to learn more about what we do. Feel free to contact me at if you have fitness-related questions or have ideas for how we can help others.

*The ProMotion Fitness Center, including the pool, is currently closed to everyone except inpatient units and employees during the pandemic. Click here for our latest coronavirus (COVID-19) updates.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.