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Can hiking help to improve cerebral palsy symptoms?

Written by Fiona

April 18 2021

Exercise is touted as a natural cure for all sorts of medical conditions, but can it help people with Cerebral Palsy? Cerebral Palsy is the name for a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and coordination caused by an issue during birth.

These issues can be the result of negligent medical care, in which case a claim for cerebral palsy can be made. One of the ways to help manage this condition is to keep the person’s body fit through exercise and physiotherapy. These therapies are usually administered in a controlled setting such as a gym, but could hiking outdoors actually be better?

In this post, we’re going to discuss whether hiking is possible for someone with cerebral palsy before considering the benefits of it.

Is hiking possible for people with Cerebral Palsy?

With mobility being one of the key issues for people with cerebral palsy, it might seem unlikely that they’d be able to hike at all. Depending on the type of cerebral palsy, muscles might involuntarily tighten, loosen and fluctuate between the two. 

Also, difficulties with balance, posture and bodily control can contribute to an abnormal gait making walking quite difficult.

Physiotherapy: This is an important part of rehabilitation for anyone with cerebral palsy and can benefit both adults and children when it comes to walking.

  • Adults: are more able to control muscle action, have improved mobility and balance, and can develop more muscle sensation through physical therapy.
  • Children: use physiotherapy to ensure continuing muscle development and decrease muscle tightness and spasms.

The more physiotherapy a person with cerebral palsy receives, the better their chances of hiking are. How far they take their training is up to them, as there are examples of people with cerebral palsy hiking as far as 11,000km across Australia.

Can hiking benefit people with Cerebral Palsy?

The answer is yes, and here’s why…

Gait training: There are certain types of physiotherapies used to improve the mobility of someone with cerebral palsy. Gait training is one of these and specifically focuses on improving walking ability.

Gait training involves several different exercises, most of which take place on a treadmill. The person with cerebral palsy is put in a harness that supports their body weight and reduces pressure on their joints. 

People with cerebral palsy can use this training to develop correct walking form and become less dependent on their walking aids. It also allows them to improve:

  • Walking speed
  • Walking endurance
  • Gross motor function
  • Step length.

Virtual reality is even being used to make the training more fun for children, so they don’t get bored or upset and give up. This training shows that the more people with cerebral palsy practice walking, the better they become at it. 

Neuroplasticity: Practice makes perfect. The more someone practices walking the better they’ll get at it and that includes people with cerebral palsy.

Children with cerebral palsy learn how to walk with their impairments, compensate for them, and develop bad habits. Even someone with mild cerebral palsy will compensate for their condition in some way.

Replacing these habits takes a lot of time and effort because the repetition of walking this way has strengthened neural pathways in the brain. The good news is neuroplasticity in the brain allows it to rewire itself and make new connections.

Each movement a person makes creates a unique set of neural pathways, and the more you stimulate the pathways, the stronger they get. So, if you start to hike more and more and use new neural pathways by walking more correctly, your body will get better at it. 

There’s evidence to suggest that children with cerebral palsy who have already learnt to walk, but not run, can run quite well if they’re taught correctly and still not be able to walk. This is because the brain is using a different set of neural pathways for running.

Walking outside is better: Gait training is definitely helpful, but to improve on your ability to walk in the outside world you have to actually practice walking in it. Obviously training in the gym with professional physios is important, but testing your new walking abilities on a hike has its own benefits.

When you hike outside there are certain obstacles that make your body work harder, such as wind resistance, other people, trees, and other physical forces working against you. On a treadmill this resistance isn’t there so it’s not a true depiction of what walking actually is.

When your body works harder it also burns calories, so hiking can benefit the physical fitness of someone with cerebral palsy in this way as well. 

On top of that, sloping paths, steps, and other terrain gives someone with cerebral palsy the ability to practice stabilising their muscles which increases balance and core strength. You can even use hills to train specific muscle groups that you can’t train on a treadmill.

Basically, hiking has lots of benefits for people with cerebral palsy that you just can’t get from working out in a gym.

In conclusion, learning the correct way to walk and practising it on hiking trips can be extremely beneficial to someone with cerebral palsy.  Hiking might not be possible immediately but, with the right physical therapy, especially gait training, someone with cerebral palsy can go on hikes. From that point on, it is sure to improve the person’s physical fitness and the mobility issues caused by cerebral palsy.

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