FES Rowing Expands Exercise Possibilities for People with Disabilities

By Mark McAndrew, Concept2 Rowing

Concept2 Rowing and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cambridge will feature Exercise for Persons with Disabilities on September 21 at Abilities Expo Boston.

Longtime hub of competitive rowing, Boston has been both witness and participant in an evolutionary form of the sport known as FES indoor rowing. (See front page Sunday Boston Globe article "Hope is a River" July 12,2009)

Indoor rowing was born in the early 1980s when brothers and former rowers Dick and Pete Dreissigacker developed the first rowing ergometer.

Indoor Assistive Rowing

Rowing ergometers are pieces of exercise equipment that accurately measure the work/performance done while putting the body through motions and physical demands similar to that of traditional on-water, competitive rowing.

Originally developed to afford on water rowers a sport-specific form of training during colder months, indoor rowing now appreciates worldwide recognition as one of the best sources of fitness exercise for not just rowers, but all folks that regularly use this machine. Indoor rowing requires work by both legs and upper body in a concerted effort, recruiting most of the major muscle groups in the process.

This recruitment of such a high percentage of muscle groups and the volume of oxygen required by those muscles far outpaces the demands of most other established forms of exercise. As a result of this greater demand, various physiological systems adapt to regular training resulting in profound health benefits to consistent users. The key here is that it matters not if the muscle contraction is innervated by an electrical stimulator or by the individual, when the muscle contracts it produces work and consumes oxygen. The heart and other key physiological players respond to deliver the needed oxygen. Regular use result in adaptations that have health benefits primarily because crucial intensity levels can be achieved and sustained by individuals with spinal cord injury (or other neuromuscular disorders) using this hybrid form of muscle recruitment.

Back to Boston...on-water rowers became so attached to indoor rowing back in the early 80s that they established a race on the indoor rower called the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints. The acronym stands for Charles River All Star Has Beens. The original 1982 race included about 90 of Boston's rowing elite and has been held every year since. The number and breadth of the participants has grown. In 2013 there were more than 2,200 participants in the one-day event held at Boston University's Agganis Arena. Competitors travel from all corners of the planet to race on the rowing ergometers. (See photos.)

At the 2006 CRASH-B Sprints, Brian Andrews PhD, a professor from Brunel University in the UK brought two spinal cord injured athletes that were paralyzed below the waist to the Sprints to demonstrate a method that enabled folks with similar SCIs to use the indoor rowing machine. Brian's system, called Functional Electrical Stimulation Rowing, made use of an electrical stimulator to cause contraction of the appropriate leg muscle groups as needed during the exercise. This hybrid form of muscle contraction enabled the SCI subjects to achieve the coordination of upper and lower body to successfully row on the ergometers.

A few years later, Harvard Professor J Andrew Taylor PhD, the Principal Investigator for Spaulding's Cardiovascular Research Lab became interested in furthering Andrews' work with FES Rowing. Taylor has recently received $2.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to study a homogenous group of individuals soon after an SCI. The preliminary work for this study relied on volunteers from the local on-water rowing community; they helped to devise and fabricate special adaptive seats and to provide input on proper rowing technique.

Dr. Taylor, Boston's rowing community, Spaulding Rehab Hospital and Concept2 Inc.—the company started by the Dreissigacker brothers that manufactures the rowing ergometers—had developed a synergy. Even former Olympic rowers Tom Darling and Gary Piantedosi got involved in equipment development and guidance for proper rowing technique in preparation for the study.

However, aside from the study population, Dr. Taylor recognized that eye-popping benefits could be realized by a population broader than just the study specific group. Dr. Taylor and Laboratory Director Glen Picard MS laid plans to develop a program that would make this form of exercise available to all qualifying folks whether or not they fit the specific criteria required by the study. Spaulding administrators were quickly on board when they realized the potential health benefits.

And so, a new program coined "Exercise for People with Disabilities" (ExPD) was initiated in 2009. The ExPD program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge showed phenomenal growth and now has 60-90 participants at any given time and does an approximate average 200 FES rowing sessions per month!


Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!

Sign up for the Abilities Buzz

Stay in the know on disability news and info.