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Freewheeling wellness: Redefining exercise for manual wheelchair users

Griffin Sipes, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, received the Seed for Science Fellowship from the De Luca Foundation.
Published on May 13, 2024

Griffin Sipes, a graduate student in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Mechanical Engineering and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, received the Seed for Science Fellowship from the De Luca Foundation this year.

The annual fellowship supports "the brightest student researchers in health and movement science-related fields [and provides] them with funding and research equipment as part of semester-long fellowships,” according to its website.

Griffin Sipes. 

Sipes will use equipment provided by the De Luca Foundation to create personalized exercise routines for manual wheelchair users. The routines will assess changes in propulsion biomechanics (i.e., how participants propel themselves forward) when using a wheelchair attachment called the FreeWheel®Sipes will provide participants with personalized heart rate targets and study loading (the pressure of added weight) on their shoulders. Ultimately, he hopes to use this exercise model to improve exercise recommendations for people with spinal cord injuries.

Sipes works with Mariana Kersh, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Ian Rice, a professor of kinesiology and community health. Sipes's project is titled “Improving exercise recommendations for cardiovascular function for persons with spinal cord injury.” 

Where did your idea for this research project begin?

The first research project I worked on while I was an undergraduate student here was focused on young racehorse foals, with the goal to prevent injuries related to racing later in life. Part of this project included creating computational models to assess how loading (meaning the load of added weight while running) on the fracture-prone regions of the foals' front legs. To do this, we used motion capture data. Often, motion capture is done in a laboratory setting, but we wanted to record the foals’ movement in their natural environment: the pasture. I led the coordination of an outdoor motion capture method that can automatically track the animals' movement in 3D.

Later, I helped another student in my lab with data collection for a study comparing handcycling biomechanics in moderate-intensity continuous exercise and high-intensity interval training. It was really fun to meet the participants in this study, who were from the Illinois Wheelchair Track and Road Racing Team, some of whom were even Paralympians. It was at this time that I realized I wanted to work in human subjects research.

When I started my graduate studies in the lab, Mariana gave me options for different projects I could work on; she was the one who suggested I could continue our lab’s partnership with Ian, who had partnered with our lab on the handcycling study. Ian had the idea for my research project because he has the wheelchair attachment that we are testing and thought it could turn out to be a more accessible exercise mode than some other options. Last fall, Mariana encouraged me to apply for the Seed for Science Fellowship because the equipment would help us increase the rigor of my study.

What was the application process like for the Seed for Science Fellowship? Did you receive any assistance in this?

To apply, I sent in three things: a biosketch, a project plan, and slides of proposed figures. The use of figures is very important because they help form a solid plan of what you want the project to be. That’s a big topic in our lab because figures help to communicate ideas.

Before submitting, Mariana reviewed my drafted application and provided feedback. She completed her first bachelor’s degree in English, so she is able to look at scientific writing from a different perspective and I think helps increase the quality of the writing coming out of our lab. There was a lot of collaboration in the process, which I really appreciated.

What problems or conditions will your study address?

The rates of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in the population of manual wheelchair users are high; people with spinal cord injuries are 50% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Physical activity can help address this, but that can be difficult. A study came out two years ago that found up to 68% of manual wheelchair users had some form of rotator cuff tear, and up to 98% of them had some type of tendinopathy. It can be a challenge to increase physical activity if somebody is already hurting or is at a high risk of getting hurt.

I wanted to address these issues, so in my project, I’m looking at the use of an off-the-shelf wheelchair attachment called the FreeWheel®. It’s a large, inflatable wheel that clamps onto the footrest of the wheelchair. It lifts the front wheels and increases the wheelbase of the chair, allowing for much easier terrain navigation. We’re also expecting this to decrease the rolling resistance on the chair because rolling resistance is inversely related to the diameter of the wheel. Ideally, this will be a viable exercise mode that reduces the shoulder loads of manual wheelchair users.

After this, I would like to run an exercise intervention study in which we give manual wheelchair users a FreeWheel® and have them go home to complete an exercise protocol a few days per week. We would complete measurements of each participant’s propulsion biomechanics and cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health before and after the study to see what kind of adaptations they may have developed.

Do you have hopes for the outcome of your study?

I'd like to establish the use of this kind of device as a viable exercise mode. From there, we can use that to improve the exercise recommendations for manual wheelchair users. The American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription is widely considered the gold standard for exercise guidelines. They list guidelines for many populations that may need special considerations, and right now, the recommendations for people with spinal cord injuries are somewhat broad regarding exercise mode. The current recommendations also use expensive equipment that may not be accessible to many people, so I am hoping that wheeling in a suspended-wheel everyday wheelchair can be a cheaper and more accessible alternative that doesn’t compromise musculoskeletal health.

Additionally, I hope that my project can allow for more research on manual wheelchair propulsion to be done in the field. A very prevalent issue with wheelchairs is terrain navigation; moving over grass or even cracks in the sidewalk can be difficult. Replicating these scenarios can be difficult in the lab, so being able to collect data in the field is a big step. We have a working SMARTWheel which has long been the gold standard for collecting wheelchair propulsion biomechanics data. However, this device has since been discontinued and there are not many working devices left. Another goal of my research is to replicate the data that comes from the SMARTWheel using wearable sensors and machine learning techniques. These techniques will allow me to collect data in the field as well as provide exercise monitoring. I hope that, after my study, other people can use the same techniques and continue progressing research in this field.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become involved in research similar to yours?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professor or a lab. The worst they can do is say no, and if that happens, you can try again. It’s also important to do a bit of background research on the projects a lab is working on before reaching out, to make sure you understand their work and are interested in becoming a part of it. I was initially nervous about reaching out, but what I found was an incredibly welcoming and collaborative lab environment, which is why I wanted to stay and complete my Ph.D. with the lab.

What’s next for you upon the completion of your Ph.D.?

I'm open to different ideas of what to do when I am finished. I'm really interested in working in a rehabilitation setting, where I could continue the kind of research I’m doing now while also being able to help patients. I’m interested in what can be achieved when engineering techniques and knowledge can be applied in a clinical setting. I've been thinking about getting certified as a clinical exercise physiologist or going to physical therapy school to help with this goal. I want to keep doing similar work to what I am doing now in ways that will be able to directly help people, and I am open to different ways to continue this path.

In this article

  • Griffin Sipes
    Griffin Sipes's directory photo.
  • Ian Rice
    Ian Rice's directory photo.
  • Mariana Kersh
    Mariana Kersh's directory photo.

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