In the Summer 2001 issue of Polio Network News (now Post-Polio Health), we asked for information from polio survivors about exercise programs that work for them. PHI welcomes others to share “what works for them.”
by Jerry V., Fort Worth, Texas
In 1954 as a child of three I contracted polio. I wore a brace until around the age of six. I was active in neighborhood athletics such as baseball and generally playing around with the neighborhood friends. Despite a pronounced limp when I ran around the age of ten my mother enrolled me in the neighborhood football league. I feel like this helped my general conditioning and strength.
I had two bone graft surgeries to stabilize my right foot between the ages of eleven and thirteen which left my right foot two sizes smaller than my left. About four years ago I started a barbell and band training program at the local YMCA. This was helpful because I lost some weight and found that I could move around better. The YMCA also offered yoga classes.
At this point in my life (I will be 54 next month) I have found yoga and abdominal core exercises to give me the greatest benefit. My lower back had been giving me problems since I was in my early thirties and now when my back begins to feel uncomfortable I can do some simple hamstring and backbend exercises that I learned in yoga which are very helpful. The whirlpool is also extremely helpful. After a strenuous power yoga class or weight class I find that a protein drink with Creatine is very helpful for recovery. I use strawberries and milk with ice and blend it together and it makes a refreshing milkshake. The yoga also helps with balance and strength off my right leg and hip which is thinner and weaker than my left. I can now balance myself just on my right leg for thirty seconds to a minute where before I could not balance for two seconds.
by Skip Kissinger Posted March 2004
My Exercise Regimen: I am currently 52; I contracted polio as a child of three. I was briefly in an iron lung and then went through therapy, braces, corrective surgery, etc. The last operations I had were in high school when one leg was shortened and an attempt was made to correct a very high arch on my “good” foot (the other one is flat).
In high school I became very interested in weight training and used to train all I could at school and home. In those days I only used protein supplements (tablets). I also trained with weights my freshman year in college but then fell off until graduate school when I became disgusted by the weight I had gained. I then worked out fairly regularly for about 5 years and was in excellent shape. I skied intensively for a few years, though I never exceeded the intermediate level due to a fused left ankle and a foot at a 45-degree angle.
As a result of the foot, I would usually find that by the end of the day, when my leg was fatigued, I was loosing control of my left ski. I also played tennis (though I wasn’t too graceful with the footwork) and hiked occasionally. Having studied weightlifting since high school, I also got a summer job with the European Health Spa as an instructor when I was in graduate school.
About five years ago, and 50-60 pounds later (gained steadily since I was married at 30), I again began a weight program. I quickly gained a significant amount of strength in my legs (especially the left one with the real damage). I should also add that I used Creatine and protein supplements when lifting weights to assist with strength and recovery. However, after a year, I moved and quit using weights.
About that time I read that persons who have had polio should not exercise any more than necessary because they might “burn out” what remaining muscle and strength they have. Well, I do not know if that is true, but I do know that I gradually got weaker and weaker, despite the fact that I walk quite a lot at work. Perhaps I should add that I avoid stairs in public (I do have them at home) since I am very awkward on them and cannot completely cushion the impact. As a result, it hurts my knee and ankle joints if I go down stairs too much.
Then about a year ago, I began experiencing a fairly rapid decline in the strength of my legs – especially the left one. I could not climb stairs without pulling my self up the rail and frequently found that I was resorting to using only my right leg to climb the steps. I also began frequently experiencing rather extreme pain in my legs and joints sometimes – often with little or no warning. If it came suddenly, it usually went away relatively soon. However, if it was the result of overuse, or too many stairs, it might last a day or two. Sometimes I could get a very sharp pain if I just moved my foot wrong while sitting. Standing up required pushing myself out of the chair with my arms and was almost impossible if I couldn’t. Finally, I could not take it any more. I had to do something for fear that I would loose so much strength that I would eventually have to get a wheelchair.
About a month ago, after the New Year, I started back on a weight lifting routine and began using a Creatine powder supplement daily (3-4 heaping teaspoons daily for 4-5 days followed by a daily heaping teaspoon dose after the loading period, plus another heaping teaspoon after working out), as well as protein powder shakes after working out. I was absolutely astonished by the difference! Although I was sore, and continue to be so after every workout, I almost doubled my strength within only a week or two. Furthermore my pain has significantly decreased and I regularly go up stairs using both legs.
I do a complete body workout, beginning with stretches for 5-10 minutes, followed by legs (leg press, leg curls, leg extensions), abs (setups with resistance), back/chest (lat pulls, chest pulls, bench press, flys), arm (curls, tricep extensions, dumbbell press). Currently I am only working out once a week. However, after a month (now) I plan to add another mid week workout. Eventually I hope to be at three workouts a week (end of this month). Although I feel weak after working out, I find that the Creatine seems to significantly increase my recovery time. It also seems to be having a very positive effect on my general leg strength.
I have never been particularly good at, or particularly interested in, any form of aerobic exercise. However, as discussed, have found anaerobic exercise to be very beneficial.
I share this in the hope that it might be useful to others or that others who have undertaken a similar routine could tell me how it has worked for them in the long run. I know that this is working now, but I have no idea what the future will hold.
I am currently working out 3 times a week and the results are continuing to progress – I have even lost a fair amount of weight (though I can’t say how much exactly since I never weigh myself). On the weight loss, I should also note that I follow an Atkin’s regime that I started about the same time I began working out.
by Pam Maywood, New Jersey
I had polio at four years of age and now am 55 years old. I have been teaching middle school for the past 32 years in the field of reading. I work part-time as a receptionist for a local dentist and volunteer at a local hospital one night a week.
Currently, I am not experiencing post-polio syndrome, other than the aches and pains of middle age. I have exercised for the past 30 years, walking three miles in 45 minutes three times a week at a women’s gym. “However, I found the routine of changing clothes at my school and then hurrying to get to the gym a bit much. So, when they were selling one of their stationary bikes for $30, I jumped on it (no pun) and began exercising at home.
I now ride for approximately two hours, spread over four days. On Saturday and Sunday, I ride for 40 minutes, taking short breaks after 15-minute intervals. On Monday and Tuesday, I ride for 15 minutes. Before exercising, I stretch out, and, as I ride, I increase the tension. I always warm up and cool down.
I exercise my upper body doing various exercises and using 5-pound weights, in addition to doing a range-of-motion regime for my arms since breast cancer surgery in January 2002. I realized, after the diagnosis, that the shape that you are in when something like this hits is very important.
It is my feeling that the exercise program that I use not only tones me, but, more importantly, builds stamina which allows me to get through my daily activities.
by Eleanora, La Mesa, California
I have taken an alternative path for managing the effects of polio that primarily affects only one leg. Over the last 55 years, I have learned that every professional in this muscle business recommends something different, so some of my success may be sheer luck.
I exercise seven days a week. Since 1964, I have done aerobics and stretching exercises geared toward women; I supplement with two sets of 10 reps of stretching of the muscles in the affected leg. I swim twice a week in an Olympic-size pool and, since 1987, I do 24 laps of the breast stroke and crawl, with a two-minute rest between each set of 8. I also lift free weights (about 8 pounds) and use weight machines twice a week (starting in 1997).
From these activities, I have created a stronger leg that allows me to continue functioning as a field-based outdoors scientist. And, I continue to follow the recommendation of resting periodically in the field and in the pool.
I am providing a time line and a narrative of my experience; some aspect of my experience may be useful to others.
Some of my luck came from very stubborn parents who found a muscle physiologist, Rene Cailliet, MD, who was testing Sister Kenny’s techniques at the Kabat Kaiser Institute, Washington, DC, when I emerged from the hospital following polio. Together, they designed hot whirlpool soaks and exercise, which was then followed by six or so years of tap, ballet, and gymnastics lessons. Until I became a teenager, I wore a brace on my skinny polio leg. For a dropped, wobbling foot, I had a tendon transplant and a zig-zag cut into my left Achilles tendon in 1957. Then, I led a normal, active life (including climbing mountains) doing daily aerobic and stretching exercises until post-polio kicked in around 1985.
Through all the years, it was obvious that the left calf muscle was non-functioning. When I joined a local support organization in 1989, I followed the recommendation to save muscle function by reducing extraneous physical activity. I did not stop daily exercises because of cardiovascular issues, but I did worry.
I got a handicapped placard and used a cane for long distance travel. I also continued to be an active field geologist, using meter-long soil augers as stabilizing crutches.
I began wearing magnet footpads in my shoes and field boots in 1995. I tested them in the field because there is no scientifically accepted theory as to why magnetism should work. I found that without them, it took four days to recover physically from one full day of field work. With them, recovery took a couple of hours of sitting down. (Dr. Cailliet thinks the benefit of the magnets may be a result of the weight of the pads rather than the magnetism.)
In 1997, my parents renewed contact with Cailliet. In the intervening years, he was Chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Southern California and now is a semi-retired clinical professor at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He advised that he did not agree with recommendations to cut out exercising and walking so as to save what little function is still present. He told me to “. start exercising and see if you can pull in a nerve from someplace else.”
So, I joined a nearby gym where the trainer put me on a variety of Cybex machines. The soleus (the muscle that extends the foot) muscle started to enlarge, but I was still very unstable on rough surfaces.
In 1999, I needed physical therapy following rotator-cuff surgery (probably from lifting weights incorrectly or exacerbating a weakened shoulder tendon). The therapist provided the important sentence: strengthen the surrounding muscles because it (missing muscle) is never going to get stronger.
In 2001, we moved and I found a new gym that had personal trainers and I hired one for six weeks. His analysis of my gait found I was not putting weight on my polio leg, thereby creating the instability. He changed my gait, having me wiggle my hips to shift the weight from side to side (“wiggle like a girl”), added a new exercise for the soleus, started me on calf exercises, and introduced stretching of various muscles. The soleus got stronger and the instability decreased. I decided to add quadriceps exercises to avoid later problems with rising from the seated position associated with aging.
This year I hired for two weeks a trainer who has a BS in muscle physiology. She added an exercise for the tibialis anterior (flexes the foot) and “core strengthening,” a teaching of abdominal physiologist Paul Chek, that involves sucking in at the bellybutton and pulling up at the abdomen while doing stretches. Almost all of the instability is gone; when I get wobbly, a function of forgetting to wiggle, I actually feel muscles tightening in both legs to stabilize me. There is still no motion in the calf muscle; that one must be gone for good.