Recreation is important for everyone. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (and Jill a dull girl). Yes, wheelchairs provide some limitation to what we can do. But there are scores of activities for people of all levels of ability. The key is to focus on the things you can do, rather than the things you cannot (see Attitude). The following recreation activities are things that I have done since breaking my neck. There are many more, and I hope you will share your experiences, through Feedback, so I can post them here.
You may not be able to go by yourself, but if it interests you at all, I recommend you try skydiving, by doing a "tandem jump." I've done it three times, and it's an incredible rush, followed by an amazing sense of calm and serenity, as you float to the ground after the parachute opens. A tandem jump means that you wear a harness that has no parachute. The back of your harness hooks to the front of a harness worn by an experienced "jumpmaster." The jumpmaster has hundreds, if not thousands, of jumps to his or her credit, and handles everything for you. You just go along for the ride, as the jumpmaster determines when to leave the airplane, how to stabilize, and when to deploy the parachute (or the backup "reserve" chute). My buddy Mark talked me into skydiving, and I'm glad he did. I had no idea it could be done by someone without use of hands. Now that I don't have full control of my body, I'm not exactly comfortable with heights. So it was good to conquer the fear and the hesitency. It's also good for getting the body's juices flowing ... getting out and living LIFE! Taking on new challenges and enjoying new experiences. If I can do it you can do it. See a YouTube video of a fellow-wheelchair guy doing a tandem skydive jump here.
Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) diving is a very popular recreational activity all across the world. You might wonder how someone without use of his arms or legs can do it. I wondered too. But, again, my great friend, Mark, convinced me it could be done. So I tried it, and now I'm spoiled. That's because I've been diving in three of the great diving spots in the world (Cayman Islands, Cozumel, and Belize). I could not get "certified" because I could not do the stuff myself. But we trained in a swimming pool before doing an "open water" dive, so that I could get comfortable. And we wanted to make sure my dive-partner (an experienced "dive master") and I understood basic signals for communicating under water. We had to practice clearing my mask under water, and "equalizing" (getting sinus pressure equal with the pressure under water) before going deeper.
When I dive I wear tennis shoes because I do not wear fins. The tennis shoes protect my feet (from coral etc.). I also have to wear extra weight (a total of about 12 pounds) because a quadriplegic's body mass changes so drastically, with the loss of muscle mass. Without the extra weight I cannot descend very well. We put the weight belt around my ankles to keep me upright, and also to keep my legs together. Once in the water, the dive master helps me get my mask secure, and situates the 'regulator' in my mouth for breathing. To begin the descent, he deflates my B.C. (Buoyancy Compensator ... a vest that's inflated with the air from the tanks). He pulls me around by the top of the air tanks strapped to my back. It is truly a wonderful experience, and a beauty that I long to enjoy again (it just takes some doing; and, remember, I've been spoiled by the places I've dived). As we descend, the dive master communicates with me through hand signals, ensuring that I have a clear mask, and that I have equalized so that we can go deeper to the next level. You'll want a dive master you can trust, but I highly recommend you try scuba diving if possible. Click here to see a good professional video from the Handicapped Scuba Association. Another video about an inspiring gal who sails and scuba dives can be seen here.
While in the Cayman Islands, on my first dive trip, I also had the pleasure of experiencing parasailing (while Mark was diving at Stingray City ... he was pretty surprised when he came back and I was gone). I met a guy in the afternoon who owned a parasailing business. He seemed pretty confident I could go safely. His particular set-up consisted of a bench on skis with a parachute on the back. As his boat got going, and the parachute filled in the breeze, he slowly let out the tether connected to ski chair. I was tightly secured in the chair. I got out and up all the way (maybe 50 to 100 yards). High enough to see across the whole island of Grand Cayman, to Little Cayman where we had dived, and Cayman Brac (the locals call it "the Brac"). It was amazingly peaceful and serene. Reminiscent of parachute rides down after skydiving ... but for much longer. It was beautiful. Try it if you ever get the chance. Another YouTube® video, here, shows how one paralyzed 'chap' parasailed without a bench chair. The video is a little long, but you'll get the idea.
Poker & Other Card Games
Poker is one of my favorite pastimes. It is competitive without requiring physical agility. Some call it a sport (if it's on ESPN it has to be a sport, right?). Some call it a vice. To me, it is recreation, and brain exercise. I play in home games, in riverboat casinos, in Las Vegas, and online. My game is Texas Hold 'Em. I prefer "no limit" because it's the purest poker game. No question it is a game involving luck. But it is also a game of skill. And the more skilled players will win more often in the long run. The movie Rounders and television coverage of The World Series of Poker, And The World Poker Tour, have rocketed the game's popularity (my buddy Pat and I began a Texas Hold 'Em tournament in 2000).
Because I can't use my hands, I sit next to the dealers. They handle my cards and chips. Almost all of the dealers I've run into in casinos seem to enjoy helping, because it's like they're playing. It may throw off their rhythm a little bit, so I tip them pretty well. They are really very nice about helping. Most of the players are pretty patient with my "special needs" too.
Not long ago I discovered something to make it easy on the dealers, and easier for me to see the cards. MattVision® is a product that holds playing cards, and has a series of mirrors to show the upper left corners of the cards through the small viewer (not visible to others around; you need to be right behind the view window). The guys who invented it are a couple of good guys. They are plumbers in Nebraska. They came up with it for their buddy, Matt, who is a card player and broke his neck. It's a great little invention for a great price ($75). You can get it online here.
We used to be able to play poker online via the World Wide Web, for real money or play money (for FREE). There were lots of sites. Now the federal government has shut them down.
My other "recreation" consists primarily of socializing and Travel. But there are many other things that can be done from a chair. I will list some here (with some links), but encourage Feedback so that I can add to the list. Obviously, the degree to which you have use of your extremities will determine the activities in which you can take part. There are several organizations dedicated to promoting wheelchair sports and activities: Wheelchair Sports USA; A Celebration of Wheels; and World Wheelchair Sports are some I've found. There are probably more. These are just some of the activities we can enjoy (each according to his/her ability):
Hunting (Rifle & Bow)
Jousting (yes, jousting, as in medieval contests)
Track & Field
Obviously, many of the above activities will provide exercise (both cardiovascular and muscular). Quadriplegics can engage in aerobic exercise of the cardiovascular system, and in electrical stimulation, known as Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), to exercise their arm muscles (click here), and leg muscles (click here). Abdominal FES is mentioned in the section on Bowel maintenance. Let's talk for a bit about range of motion and massage. "Passive" range of motion is the process whereby a person's joints are moved by someone (or something) else. The intent is to prevent those joints, the muscles and connective tissue around them, from seizing up, or the limits of motion from reducing. A process known as heterotopic ossification occurs in non-ambulatory people with spinal cord injuries. That is a process whereby additional calcium deposits occur in the soft or connective tissues, especially around the joints. I was originally told that this ossification can also impair range of motion. That was the reason I was told I needed passive range of motion exercises when I was newly injured. You might want to discuss with your doctor or therapist whether passive range of motion helps to prevent the calcium buildup.
The idea behind passive range of motion, I'm told, is to keep a body in a state of preparedness, for the day when medical science comes up with a reliable cure for damaged central nervous tissue. In 1985 my rehabilitation doctor shared an insightful observation. He said, "You can spend your life waiting for and preparing for a cure, or you can get on with living." I found that to be excellent advice. It has shaped my approach to LIFE in a wheelchair.
Things already take longer for us. I can't imagine spending an extra hour, or even half hour, a day or several times a week, doing physical rehabilitation (passive range of motion). That is not to say that it couldn't be beneficial to other folks (or to me). It's just not for me. It doesn't seem worth the effort (I could have spent over 8,000 hours now, preparing for a cure). I suppose my mindset has been that if they come up with a viable cure, I'll deal with my joints and range of motion then. I don't feel especially tight, and don't have persistent pain, even in the joints where I have full sensation. I'm comparativly very healthy.
Sitting up in a wheelchair for 15 to 20 hours a day can cause my back and shoulders to feel a little bit tight, but that's to be expected. I used to get an hour and a half massage, once or twice a week. Most often, a massage therapist would come to my home, and massage my back, arms, shoulders, neck, and head, while I sat in my chair. It felt wonderful, and I would sleep like a brick afterward (and sometimes during). But after a while I came to understand that when muscles are stretched, they eventually contract to their original state, and can sometimes contract even tighter than before being stretched. Though the massages felt great, and were very relaxing, I began to feel tighter and tighter, a day or so after; to the point where the massage wasn't worth enduring the ensuing tightness (they were also fairly expensive). My muscles were getting "addicted" to the massage, if you will.
Massage therapy helped me through some rough days, and was a good thing in many ways (met some great people who are therapists too). But now I don't get them, because I don't need them. You may want to think about trying massages, from a certified massage therapist. But one of the dangers I was warned about in rehab is that massage can tend to dislodge blood clots, and "throw" them into the circulatory system, which can then result in heart attack or stroke. Blood clots, as you may know, are more prevalent in folks who are inconvenienced by a wheelchair. That's because we're sedentary, and our blood tends to pool. But I was never really worried about blood clots, because I'm fortunate to have surprisingly low in cholesterol levels (I must have "the gene"). Whatever you do, get an opinion from your doctor (and maybe a second opinion) before you undertake any changes that may affect your health.