Episode 21 Transcript

Published: Thursday November 9, 2023

Adaptive Fitness and Nutrition with Nikki Walsh

Empowering Wheelchair Users to Achieve Their Fitness Goals


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia Anderson, and we have got another really cool episode for you today. I have got the amazing, talented, strong, powerful, beautiful Nikki Walsh. She is a NASM personal trainer and nutrition coach, a content creator.

She strives to show all wheelchair users that, despite their disability, they can do anything they want in life.

Nikki, thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of your magic with us today.

Nikki Walsh: Thank you, Alycia.

Alycia Anderson: Can you paint us a beautiful picture of who you are. A little of your disability, whatever you are comfortable with?

Nikki Walsh: So, my name is Nikki. As you all have just heard, I am a wheelchair user. I became a wheelchair user in 2018. I just celebrated my five-year life day. Actually, on August 18th.

I have a Pitbull Chihuahua. Ah, Kato who I love and adore. He keeps me going. He is one of the biggest “why’s” as to why I wanted to get back to being me and…

Alycia Anderson: Did you say Pitbull Chihuahua?

Nikki Walsh: I gotta stop there for one minute. I do not know what happens in Tennessee, but he was a rescue. My mom was the Pitbull. Do not worry.

Yeah, so I loved dancing when I was in high school, I played soccer. I just always have been super active. That is why I chose the route of exercise science and kinesiology, and I got into personal training and I fell in love with it helping other people achieve their goals and just the joy that I see on their face when they win.

Whether that is getting stronger or losing weight or gaining weight, whatever their goal is. I am a part of that journey and it makes me so happy to see them win.

And then I became a wheelchair. User from a car accident in 2018 and I am just so lucky to still be here. It was a multi-car car accident, a SUV rear-ended me at full speed and into a tractor trailer and then the tractor trailer dragged my car into a median and I was pinned in between the median and the tractor trailer, and it was not a beautiful picture.

I luckily do not remember any of it except for waking up or coming too and screaming that I was not going to die and to get me out.

And that is the last thing I remember from my car accident. And I saw the photos afterwards. And like I said, I am just so, so lucky to be here and so happy that I am.

I am paralyzed from the chest down. I originally did not have any feeling or movement below that level, but I now have regained some sensation so I can feel when people are touching my legs through muscular touch, not skin touch. But I also started out as a complete injury where I again I could not feel or move anything below my level of injury.

Now I am slightly incomplete, so I have some movement and muscle contraction down to my hips, so I am actually able to get into full leg braces now, which is really, really cool. But yeah, that is a little bit about me. My history with training and how I got. Injured and yeah…

Alycia Anderson: So, congratulations on your celebration of your life day.

Nikki Walsh: Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: I think that that is really important and maybe really quickly you could tell our listeners if they do not know what that is, what that is.

Nikki Walsh: Sure. So, in the wheelchair user community, we have what is termed a life day and it is the day where you became a wheelchair user and you are starting your new life.

And I look at it as a new start and a new journey and everybody’s journey is different, and each life day comes with different emotions and feelings, and I have definitely grown since my first and second and third life day.

This year it was not as… it it is always a little emotional but… it was not as emotional as those first few life days.

But it is amazing to just look back and see everything that I have accomplished each year, and just celebrate moving forward and, you know, accomplishing goals.

Alycia Anderson: You did a really great job with sharing your life day this year and it was just really bright like it was very from an outsider looking in. It really, truly looked like you being very empowered in your space.

So, you know, just congratulations on that journey of like, acceptance, I guess, yeah.

It is really cool. Can you talk about the journey from pre to post injury and you are on this path to a fitness career.

You have got all these dreams and goals. What did that look like initially?

Nikki Walsh: Fitness always has been a passion of mine. When you suffer a spinal cord injury or become a wheelchair user for whatever reason… and a lot of us just want to walk again, and that was my main driver and focus.

So, I was in physical therapy inpatient and then I went to outpatient physical therapy and was working as hard as I could to get as much mobility… the strength back as I could and I was about a year into my recovery and I was on a family vacation in Hawaii.

And I went to the gym there and it was, you know, smaller and like many hotel gyms did not have much space to move around. Not much equipment for even non wheelchair users, but I remember trying to move around and luckily my sister was with me because I could not really fit to get to the weights and the resistance bands and really, I did not have the strength because my core was lacking.

But I remember leaving after that workout and just being extremely sad and feeling depleted and defeated, and I went back to my room and cried.

It was then that I made the decision to reach out to my friend who is also a personal trainer and get back into the gym because that was my home pre-accident and I did not want to feel that way anymore. So, I got home. Signed up with her, got into the gym. I hated it. I felt so uncomfortable. I felt like everyone was staring at me. And we figured it out.

You know, getting back into the gym with her was really great for that reason. She knew me. She knew my body, we worked together, and I started to fall back in love with the process of building strength and getting creative with different ways to adapt exercises to strengthen my body, and because of that it was my saving grace.

Because it showed me, that I can do whatever I want to do.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah, you can! I think you said to me, and correct me if I am wrong, but you talked about getting up in your leg braces and being able to be ambulatory to a certain extent.

I am assuming and I believe you told me this, that it is, you know, because of your fitness and building up your core and your muscles and so your functionality is increasing like tenfold because of the commitment to fitness and exercise, correct?

Nikki Walsh: Yes, correct. I would not be where I am today, if I was not focusing on strength training and making that mind muscle connection, if I did not have the core strength that I have now, I would not have been able to get into those full leg braces because you need to be able to hold yourself up.

You need to have a strong trunk, and be able to keep your hips forward.

If I was not able to do that then I would not be able to get into full leg braces so… you know working on my entire upper body as a whole and not just focusing on, you know, strengthening my shoulders or my biceps or my triceps… where a lot, I feel like a lot of our community just gets sucked into focusing on those two muscle groups. Or focusing on just core where we need to focus on our entire upper body.

But yeah, that was a huge win in getting into and getting those leg braces and not just for myself, but a bunch of my clients whose core has gotten so strong.

But one specifically she was… she came to me… she had a very weak left side where she was leaning completely to the left. When she wheeled, she could not sit up straight in her wheelchair and we worked a lot on making that mind muscle connection.

Where… and I tell this to my clients all the time, I want you to feel like you are sucking your belly button in.

If you cannot feel it, I do not care. Still do it.

Make that mind muscle connection. It is so important. Way more important than anybody thinks. We made that mind muscle connection each and every session queueing her constantly to do so. We worked on, you know, pulling towards the opposite side while she is working… you know that weaker side.

We need to work both sides of the body at the same weight. So even though her right side was a lot stronger, we are still lifting the same on the right side, as we are on the left side because we do not want to… you know, continue to strengthen that right side so much where the left side is still lagging behind.

So, we did a bunch of one-sided exercises, a lot of that mind muscle connection and now she is able to fully sit up straight in her wheelchair, bring her arms out to the side, bring her arms over head, out in front of her.

She can transfer from the floor to her wheelchair without assistance. She can transfer in and out of the car without assistance.

It is amazing to see it or to just know that I am a part of that journey is so, so special and that is just one of my clients. All of my clients have great success stories and it all begins with that customized program for them and really working on the entire whole upper body.

Alycia Anderson: You know what I love about that too? Just reminded me I love going to the gym too, and it is an uncomfortable, almost can be embarrassing, sometimes being the only wheelchair user in this.

You do not necessarily feel like you completely fit-in. I like to get on hand cycles that are like right in the middle of… all the other cardio people stare.

And so, it was like, motivate me to go harder and harder. Yeah, but I would see them go harder and then I would go harder.

Nikki Walsh: I love that, it is so powerful.

Alycia Anderson: Well, the work that you are doing and impactful like that type of independence that you are gifting and teaching and educating on, it is key.

I mean, it is like why I focused on disability sports.

What are the benefits? Independence, balance, stability and then preserving our bodies, right?

Removing the risk of injury like keeping our body healthy so we can stay as healthy as possible as we age and our disability changes.

Nikki Walsh: And yeah, you said something there… as we age with a disability, and I was talking to a client the other day about getting in enough protein with our strength training program because especially as wheelchair users, we are sitting down all the time.

And well, the majority of us are if we are non-ambulatory.

So, a big problem with our community is that our muscles atrophy. While they are atrophying at a faster rate because we are not providing our muscles with the nutrients, they need to stay the same. If we cannot grow them, that’s protein.

Protein is the only thing that is going to repair and maintain your lean muscle tissue. That is what makes up our muscles.

Alycia Anderson: You are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia. I have got the amazing, talented, strong, powerful, beautiful Nikki Walsh.

I was looking at statistics, there is like 50% of disabled people are more likely to be obese. Can you speak to the importance of that?

Nikki Walsh: Yeah, of course we can work out all day, but if your main goal is to lose weight, if you are not eating a nutritious diet or eating really in a calorie deficit with a good amount of protein, a good amount of fiber.

You are not going to lose the weight that you want to lose.

There has been this just big miscommunication where people believe that exercise is going to make them lose weight. It is going to assist in that weight loss, yes. And it is going to help show those muscles when you do lose the weight, however, 70 to 80% of it is actually from your diet.

So, if you are not eating in a calorie deficit with enough protein to support your muscle health, you are most likely going to stay the same or just lose weight at a very slow rate, especially while being in a wheelchair.

It takes a lot longer. That is an issue I deal with, with a lot of my clients. Because we are in this instant gratification world where we want things yesterday or the day before. But we do not put on the weight overnight, so it is not going to come off overnight and by sitting down constantly on metabolism adapts and is slower. So, something that I like to work with on my clients is fixing their metabolism, helping it speed up to a rate where it is back to normal, it takes time, but you can get there with proper nutrition with getting enough protein with eating foods high in fiber, eating less processed foods.

But focusing on just exercise is not going to get you where you need.

Alycia Anderson: I think the nutrition. Part is so, so, so, so, so important tied into this. Where do you see adaptive fitness and nutrition going? What are the barriers right now that we need to try to break down?

Nikki Walsh: Yeah. First, we need gyms that have more adaptive equipment.

There needs to be equipment like there are in the rehab facilities where you can just wheel up and do rows or do a chest exercise without having to transfer out of your wheelchair onto the seat.

There need to be more trainers who are knowledgeable in adaptive fitness to start. But even just the guidelines coming out of rehab or coming out of the hospital.

You cannot just send us home with like a little sheet of here are some you know; stretches you should do now.

We need more than that. We need more resources and that is actually something that I am in the works on with Jesi Stracham, actually she started wheel with me fitness. We are working on some exciting stuff together for the wheelchair community in fitness and that will just be a start.

No, there needs to be a bigger emphasis on strength training and the importance of that for wheelchair users because just because we are a wheelchair user does not mean that we do not need to strength train like a non-wheelchair user. Where is that emphasis?

I know there is a ton of other things going on and of fitness and nutrition. They always fall to the back burner. They need to be more forefront recovery, especially from the spinal cord injury.

Your fitness and nutrition is going to amplify that, and you are going to recover at a faster rate and I mean, I cannot even think about where I would be if I had the knowledge that I do now when I first became injured.

Alycia Anderson: I think to that point is we need so much more education in this. The barriers, in my experience rolling into one of these environments and having these professionals not knowing how to guide us.

Nikki Walsh: So, true. A lot of my clients come to me and they are so grateful that they found a personal trainer who is a wheelchair user because it is… we get it and I know how to adapt exercises for them and as happy as that makes me, it also makes me sad that there are not more of us out there.

Alycia Anderson: It is so exciting to see all the opportunities and all the impact that you are making. Like it is about time. It is 2023. Let us go.

Nikki Walsh: Yes, let us go.

Alycia Anderson: OK, so I could talk to you all day. Is there anything that I missed that we? Really need to make sure that we touch on.

Nikki Walsh: I do want to touch on the nutrition aspect a bit more. Post injury or recovery or becoming a wheelchair user. I feel like we are put into this box where ohh you are a wheelchair user. You do not need to eat as much when in fact that is not true.

I eat probably more or just the same as my sister who is a non-wheelchair user, works out her legs.

All of the things, but I have restructured my nutrition and yes, it has taken two years to get to where I am but I have built enough muscle, I have refired my metabolism and that needs to be a bigger conversation.

Rather than ohh you are a wheelchair user now. OK, here’s 1200 calories, you know, less carbs.

No, we need carbohydrates. Do you know why? Because that is where we get all of our fiber from. You know what a huge issue is, gut health.

It is a huge issue.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah.

Nikki Walsh: And if you are telling us to not eat carbs, well, there goes our gut health. There comes constipation or there comes accidents and all of the things that come with a lot of our issues in the wheelchair community and disability community.

So, you know, not just fitness, but nutrition for aging and recovery with a disability is just so, so important.

Alycia Anderson: Where do our listeners go to find resources like this?

Nikki Walsh: I am going to be posting more recipes and information on my page about paralysis nutrition…

She posts a bunch of great recipes that are very gut health friendly. She is very knowledgeable. In the area of paralysis and she also works with other wheelchair users, not just spinal cord injury.

Listen to your doctors for all of your health advice, but do your due diligence and talk to someone… follow those people who are doing it and seeing the success and ask them as well.

Because unless you are living it, you do not fully know.

Alycia Anderson: 100% I agree, and I think that is the same whether you are disabled or not. I mean, we all know, but like having like health and nutrition experts in your life to give you advice and all of that is really important. So OK, where do we find you?

Nikki Walsh: You can find me on Instagram mostly I am on TikTok. They are both the same Nikki Walsh dot adapt fit and my website is nikkiwalsh.com.

Alycia Anderson: We always wrap up with the pushing forward moment, maybe something that can inspire our listeners to get started on their own journey. Do you have a little nugget of gold that you can gift away?

Nikki Walsh: Once you shift your perspective around your disability to stop letting it hold you back. The changes that you will see not only in your mental health but in your physical health will shoot you forward.

Alycia Anderson: Nikki, thank you so much with sharing all of this amazing information and your expertise. You are such a gift to this world and we are so lucky to be able to learn from you and follow you.

So, thank you so much for giving me some time and creating this new friendship. I am so happy that we have met. Thank you so much.

Thank you to our listeners for tuning in again.

This is Pushing Forward with. Alycia and that is how we roll on this podcast. We will see you next time.