High-protein diet and combination exercise may improve outcomes in individuals with traumatic spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is an irreversible condition that is commonly associated with death or permanent disability. Many individuals with SCI experience metabolic disorders, which can put them at higher risk of developing illnesses like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, typical interventions for these conditions include lifestyle interventions, such as exercise regiments, may be inaccessible to people with SCI.

Recently, a team of researchers in Alabama worked to develop a targeted diet and exercise routine designed for people with SCI who experience metabolic dysfunction as a result of injury. First, the researchers designed a combined exercise regimen, which included typical upper-body resistance training and electrical stimulation-induced resistance training, which can activate muscle groups in individuals with paralysis. The Exercise Group, composed of six participants with SCI, completed this exercise program. Because the researchers were interested to learn if exercise or diet is more effective in resolving metabolic disorders, they administered a high-protein diet to a separate Diet Group, composed of five other patients with SCI. After eight weeks, the researchers compared the metabolic function of the Exercise Group and the Diet Group, finding that:

  • Both groups experienced moderate weight loss as a result of treatment, resulting in overall healthier body composition.
  • The Exercise Group experienced a decrease in overall glucose levels. After eight weeks of the exercise program, glucose levels dropped from the “prediabetic” level to normal levels.
  • The Diet Group demonstrated a decrease in insulin resistance. People who are resistant to a natural hormone called insulin, which regulates blood sugar, experience high blood sugar and are at high risk of developing diabetes.

Combination exercise and high-protein diets are both promising treatment options for individuals with SCI who experience metabolic disorders. Both programs resulted in positive outcomes, such as healthy weight loss and decreased risk of diabetes. Further research is necessary to determine if these treatment plans could offer increased benefits when administered together.

Li J, Polston KF, Eraslan M, et al. A high-protein diet or combination exercise training to improve metabolic health in individuals with spinal cord injury: a pilot randomized study. Physiological Reports. (July 2018).


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