Blog PostsSep 8, 2023

How to Exercise If You Have Spina Bifida

Physical activity is crucial to staying healthy, but if you have Spina Bifida, exercise is especially important. It builds muscle, improves flexibility, and helps us perform everyday actions. Exercising with Spina Bifida will require some help, patience, and dedication, but it’s worth the effort. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to stay active, regardless of the severity of your condition. For more information, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to exercise if you have Spina Bifida.

Understanding Spina Bifida

Spina Bifida is a birth defect that occurs when the spine and Spinal cord don’t form properly during pregnancy. It’s a neural tube defect (NTD) and can occur in various places along the spine. This results in gaps in the backbone not properly fusing together, which can lead to susceptibility to problems or damage to the nerves in the Spinal cord. It’s considered one of the most common central nervous system birth defects in the United States, affecting about 1 in every 2,758 babies. Cases of Spina Bifida range from mild to severe and fall under one of three types—myelomeningocele, meningocele, and Spina Bifida Occulta.

  • Myelomeningocele — the most common and serious type of Spina Bifida. It occurs when a sac containing the spinal cord, meninges, and spinal fluid comes through an opening in the back. This can lead to movement issues, urologic conditions, and a loss of feeling in the legs or feet. 
  • Meningocele — often results in less severe nerve damage, as the protruding sac is smaller and only contains the spinal fluid. This is the least common type of Spina Bifida.

Spina Bifida Occulta — results in an incomplete backbone formation before birth, with small gaps between spine bones/vertebrae. This type of Spina Bifida affects about 1 out of 10 people and most of them do not show symptoms.

Benefits of Exercising with Spina Bifida

Exercising is great for everyone but can be especially beneficial for individuals with Spina Bifida. Some of the most notable benefits of exercising with Spina Bifida include the following:

  • Improves balance
  • Strengthens coordination skills
  • Promotes healthy growth
  • Helps with bone density
  • Improves flexibility
  • Enhances cardiovascular fitness
  • Boosts self-esteem
  • Helps maintain a positive mood
  • Elicits relaxation
  • Reduces constipation
  • Creates bonding moments among friends
  • Supports independent management 
  • Helps individuals maintain a healthy weight

A Few Tips on Exercising with Spina Bifida

Individuals with Spina Bifida are more likely to experience various complications throughout their lives, but not everyone will have the same experience. The degree of complications or symptoms is directly related to the size of the neural tube defect and the involved nerves. Exercising with Spina Bifida can help manage many complications, but there are a few things to consider before getting started.

Always Talk to Your Doctor

Never begin any exercise regimen without first consulting with your doctor. It’s important that you understand your limits and know how to approach each exercise safely. Before starting, you should discuss any concerns and schedule regular follow-up appointments to track your progress. 

Set Goals for Yourself

Learning how to exercise with Spina Bifida won’t happen overnight. Although getting plenty of activity from an early age is important, your goals might change as you get older. Consider some things you want to achieve and write down your goals. Maybe you want to be more independent to support going to college with Spina Bifida, or maybe you just want to build more muscle. Whatever it is, find something that can help motivate you to stay consistent.

Find the Right Physical Therapist

Individuals with Spina Bifida should work closely with a physical therapist to ensure they’re maintaining good form and safe movements. Plenty of physical therapists are available to help individuals exercise with spinal cord injuries, Spina Bifida, and other conditions. Ask your doctor for a few recommendations and schedule some meetings. Choosing the right physical therapist for your needs and lifestyle will make a world of difference when it comes to working out with Spina Bifida.

How to Exercise with Spina Bifida

After speaking with your doctor and finding a physical therapist who understands how to exercise with Spina Bifida, you’re ready to get started. Some of the best tips for exercising with Spina Bifida include the following.

Maintain Good Form

Regardless of what exercise you’re performing, good form is non-negotiable. Proper form can help you reduce your risk of injury, but it also improves your overall performance and supports a full range of motion. These can help you reach your goals without overdoing it. Working with a physical therapist can help you learn the feel for proper form and how to adjust as necessary.

Warm Up and Cool Down

As with any exercise regimen, don’t forget to include a warm-up and cool-down with each session. You should undergo about five to 10 minutes of warm-ups to help get your body ready, then about 10 minutes of cool-down to help your body transition.

Stretch Regularly

According to the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), individuals with Spina Bifida should stretch at least three to four times per week. Building flexibility helps keep hip muscles stretched out, which further assists in muscle development that facilitates movement. You can find some popular stretches for Spina Bifida in the video here. If you feel pain during a stretch, discontinue and check with your physical therapist. It’s important to maintain proper form and to avoid overexertion to reduce the risk of injury.

Build Your Balance

If your Spina Bifida is severe, you may experience paraplegia at some point in your life. If this happens, it’s good to work your core and upper body to help you maintain balance while you’re in a wheelchair. Although plenty of assistive devices are available to help, exercising is often the best option. Movements involving sitting up and maintaining good posture can help with balance, along with plenty of core strengthening exercises. Just make sure your physical therapist approves them, as some core exercises may cause strain on the Spinal cord.

Add in Strength Training

The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability also recommends that individuals with Spina Bifida perform strength training at least three days a week. This can help reduce the risk of injury while improving your ability to perform daily tasks. You can use free weights, machines in the gym, resistance bands, balls, and more.

Don’t Forget About Endurance

In total, you should be exercising about five days per week with Spina Bifida. This should include three days of strength training in addition to flexibility and endurance activities. Aerobic activities help strengthen the cardiovascular system and improve overall performance. Luckily, you can get in your endurance workouts in several ways, even if you’re not a huge fan of doing so. If you’re in a wheelchair, pushing your wheelchair throughout your neighborhood or a park is a great option. You can also walk your dog, try rowing, or use a modified bike with hand pedals. If you can, go for a light walk or use a stationary bike. If you’re unsure what to do, ask your physical therapist for more recommendations.

Spend Time in Water

Swimming is another great exercise to do with Spina Bifida. The water helps reduce pressure, making it an extremely low-impact option. This can help decrease pain and improve strength, endurance, and even flexibility.

Consider Modified Sports

Finally, consider trying some modified sports. Individuals with Spina Bifida who don’t experience mobility issues can participate safely in almost every sport. The only exceptions are high-contact sports like football or rugby. However, there are several options, including disability-friendly sports. Consider trying basketball, tennis, pickleball, swimming, or even rowing.


Living with a neural tube defect can be challenging, but keeping yourself healthy, active, and fit can drastically increase your quality of life. In addition to physical health, it’s also important to prioritize your mental health and well-being. Joining a support group and connecting with others living with Spina Bifida can be extremely beneficial, but so is managing complications. To help you with urologic conditions associated with Spina Bifida, Byram Healthcare is here. We carry a wide selection of high-quality urologic products to help you maintain control of your life. To learn more, or to speak with a professional regarding questions or ongoing management, contact Byram Healthcare today.