We spoke to the star of the empowering video, Andrea Dalzell, about what it's really like to stay fit in a wheelchair.

By Kylie Gilbert
May 17, 2017

Nearly a year ago, Apple Watch rolled out a software update that optimized the Activity app for those in wheelchairs (with wheelchair pushes contributing to all-day calorie goals) and introduced wheelchair-specific workouts-a huge step forward in making fitness trackers and apps more disability-friendly and encouraging *all* bodies to move.

But until now, we'd yet to see those features in action. Now, in honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (May 18), Apple has released a series of films that depict the impact accessible tech has on people's lives when you design for everyone, including people with a range of disabilities. One of the videos features Andrea Dalzell, 29, who was diagnosed with transverse myelitis (TM), an extremely rare neurological disorder that causes the body to attack the spinal cord, and has been a fulltime wheelchair user since the age of five. (Related: How I Stay Fit In a Wheelchair.)

We talked to Andrea about the powerful video, how the Apple Watch changed her workout game, and what people don't understand about what it's like to stay fit in a wheelchair. Here, she shares her story:

At a young age I never really realized what it meant to be healthy or stay fit. I just knew I had a different life than everyone else. But my parents really pushed me and helped me figure out everything I wanted to do-like getting me an adaptive bicycle so I could ride in the park with them as a kid. They didn't let me feel pity and taught me to love who I was no matter what. In high school, it was hard because I didn't find anyone to connect with on a level of being a teenager with a disability, but I took up wheelchair racing and I was always really good at being fast, and being able to get through tight spaces and being able to turn on a dime.

But it got harder as I got older, especially being in New York City. I realized I wanted to be in the medical field, which meant I needed to have a lot of strength and stamina to keep up. Being in a chair is already taxing, and you're susceptible to heart and circulation issues. As a nursing student, I recognized that if I'm going to teach my patients about being healthy, I needed to show that I'm doing it too. I wanted to show that if I can do it in my position, so can you. The problem was, I didn't know how to stay active or approach going to the gym. You don't see people with disabilities at the gym. I didn't want to be the elephant in the room, and I didn't know how to adapt the equipment.

Then I found the Axis Project, a fully wheelchair accessible gym for people with all types of disabilities. They specially trained personal trainers to show you how to adapt regular gym equipment and show you how to concentrate on certain areas, especially when you have different levels of spinal cord injury. I can't even tell you, my life changed completely. I went from taking a regular stroll around the park with my friends to boxing and skydiving and rowing. I mean, who sees a girl in a chair boxing? I am as active as you can possibly be. If it wasn't for that, I probably would still be wheelchair racing and not knowing that there's a whole other world out there when it comes to working out.


Another big part of my fitness is the Apple Watch. I had always been an Apple user, but when they introduced the watch, I was really hesitant because I had been using another tracker for my steps and it was inaccurate-the steps definitely don't equate to my rolls in the chair. So when I got the original Apple Watch I would see these steps and I would be like, "I don't know if this is right." But the main feature that stuck out to me was the heart rate monitor. I suffer from a heart condition related to TM that causes my heart rate to sky rocket and doesn't come down. So being able to track my heart rate while I was racing friends in the park or doing normal activities was huge. Now I can look at it and know that if my heart rate goes above 130 and isn't coming down after five minutes, then there's something wrong and I need to get flat and relax or get to a hospital.

But now with the update, I can finally get an accurate measure of how much I'm moving and how many calories I'm actually burning in a day and can share my "pushes" with my doctor, which is really important since being in a wheelchair makes me more susceptible to shoulder tears. So we get to say "ok, if I'm doing 12,000 pushes seven days a week, what could my shoulders look like in five years?"

I'm glad the rest of the world seems to be on a health kick, but you still don't see a lot of women like me in gyms. Thankfully, the internet and the media are encouraging people to do anything they want, wheelchair or not. It's a slow pace, but it's happening. And now we have women like Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran and double amputee, as role models. Growing up, I didn't have any role models to follow, and I struggled with that a lot. That's where I fall in. I want to be that person for someone else.