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Bike opens fitness options for users with disabilities

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Published on Nov 7, 2007

No matter how physically limited a person might be, physical fitness continues to be the common denominator for longer, more fulfilling lives.

Thanks to a generous gift from two local donors, the University of Alberta's Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement now boasts an impressive new piece of equipment that allows people with quadriplegia and paraplegia better access to such a life.

The RT 300 Motorized Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Cycle Ergometer allows people who have lost the use of their legs to better access a technology designed to keep them fit.

FES is a technique which applies electrical currents to paralyzed muscle through electrodes placed on the surface of the skin. This current delivers the necessary stimulation to illicit a muscle contraction with the purpose of providing useful movement so a person can exercise.

"We stimulate their muscles to pedal the bicycle against a resistance," said Bethany Steen, an FES consultant with the centre. "Just as anyone would pedal on an exercise bike, their muscles are pedalling but the action is controlled by electrical stimulation.

"It stimulates the quadriceps on one side just at the same time as the quadriceps on the other so then it is a push-pull pedaling motion. Just as your brain controls your own muscles, the machine controls the muscles in this case."

For people who have lost the use of their legs, the muscles in the legs begin to deteriorate.

"Over time we can slow muscle atrophy and even build up muscle," said Steen, adding that there are other benefits as well. "The RT 300 allows people to also get some much-needed cardiovascular exercise. Because they are sitting in their chairs all the time, they are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes."

Steen says the bike improves circulation, which helps with pressure sores and seems to alleviate the pain that comes with muscle spasms.

"And just getting some general exercise, their energy levels go up, and just like any of us who get out and exercise regularly, they start to feel better about themselves."

The centre already utilizes two similar bikes, but the RT 300 has the advantage of being transfer free, which means users stay in their own wheelchair during the workout.

"The difference with this bike is that the staff doesn't have to transfer you, so it is a lot easier on them," said Darin Wood, a 19-year-old quadriplegic who has been using the RT 300 three times a week. An avid athlete before a car accident in May of 2006, Wood found a way to stay physically active despite his injury thanks to the cutting-edge equipment at The Steadward Centre.

"I was playing hockey five to six nights a week, not only that but all kinds of sports. I was extremely active, but after being on the bike a short amount of time it was almost like my legs woke back up again. I got my hockey legs back."

Another improvement on the new bike, which carries a price tag of more than $20,000, is that it is controlled by wireless Internet. Programs designed online can be downloaded onto the RT 300. Every member has a specific code that is punched into the control pad and their individual program comes up.

"The bike, being so new, means it is a lot smoother and there are a lot more program advances," said Wood, one of seven Steadward Centre members who use the RT 300. "We can work at a greater level of resistance and use different strengthening exercises. The greater level of resistance gives me harder workouts, so in that sense you get more of a cardio workout and a muscle workout as well."

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