As Carol Conforti-Adams recovered from being paralyzed in a 2002 car accident, she began to feel a desperate need to do something with her life. She was in her 40s and had spent a large portion of her career working in the hospital business, focusing on promoting health and wellness. She had seen first-hand the potential value of social exercise groups when she launched an award-winning program for seniors called HOP (Healthy Old People). As she began to understand the needs of the wheelchair-using community, she wondered whether a similar program could work for it.
The result became Wheelchair Health in Motion, a unique blend of peer support groups and exercise that is quickly spreading throughout New Hampshire. The New Hampshire chapter of United Spinal collaborates closely with WHIM, and chapter president Mark Race is one of the seven trained peers who leads a regular weekly group at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Concord. He got to know Conforti-Adams when she served on an advisory committee for the chapter. He says the program’s mix of socializing and exercise can be nothing short of life changing. “I’ve seen people come in who looked like they were beaten down by life and turn around in a couple of months and leave with a newfound confidence in life,” he says. The benefits go beyond confidence and attitude. Race mentions one attendee with cerebral palsy who started coming. “At the time, he had a tracheotomy and a vent,” he says. “Through exercising and learning about proper nutrition and exercising at home, he is no longer vent dependent.”
The free sessions consist of an extensive regimen of upper body stretches and exercises specifically designed for wheelchair users. Peer leaders receive training and are given a 100-page manual that Conforti-Adams developed for the program. “We spent a lot of time developing a manual, and we made sure it was reviewed by neurologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists,” she says. “That was really important to me because of my background in health. We wanted to make sure that the exercises we were promoting were actually beneficial to people with spinal cord injuries.”
“The great thing about WHIM is that anybody can do it,” says Race. “There’s a lot of repetition, but in a fun way. Everybody does it to the level they can. Whether you do a little or a lot, you just have to start.”
Conforti-Adams has been thrilled to watch the program expand to four locations and serve a growing number of people, with as many as 15 attending some of Race’s Concord sessions, but she still sees room for growth and improvement.
“It hasn’t yet surpassed what I expected because I’d love to have more community,” she says. “It has brought me more awareness about how difficult it is for people to get out there because of their social and economic situations.”
With no local accessible public transportation options, Race says many attendees rely on local independent living organizations for rides, even though they only receive as few as two rides per month. “The chance to be among their peers, to work out and to have fun is a huge draw,” says Race, who works as the peer support supervisor for Granite State Independent Living.
“I fully believe it’s something that can be duplicated with a small amount of time and energy,” she says.
For more information on Wheelchair Health in Motion, call 603/938-2562 or visit www.sheinh.org/index.php/whim.