When the gym becomes a lifesaver

The health benefits of being in shape are well known but when injury and accident strike the super-fit really show their mettle.

They have it all over the sluggish majority when it comes to recovering from significant trauma or injury, according to Randall Simon, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist at My Turn rehabilitation clinic.

Some of their advantage is because the super-fit have done the hard yards before – “in our experience people recover better if they've trained previously at high intensity” – and the rest is about the mental focus that drove them to elite fitness in the first place.

They don't come much fitter than the former navy diver Paul de Gelder. A shark attack in Sydney Harbour left him severely maimed and fighting to survive. His right arm was severed at the elbow and his leg was destroyed and later amputated.

A two-hours-a-day gym junkie before the attack, de Gelder began a long journey back to fighting fitness from his hospital bed, doing one-armed chin-ups just hours after having his leg removed.

While doctors and friends begged him to slow down, he says being super-fit didn't just make the rehab process less daunting – it helped save his life.

“I could deal with having a diminished oxygen supply – it's one of the reasons I survived and it was so beneficial afterwards,” de Gelder said.

"I couldn't tell you how much harder it would have been if I hadn't been fit and done sports.”

After discharge from hospital, De Gelder began spending three hours a day in the gym with an army pal to rebuild his strength and endurance; a gruelling process for which years of military service had prepared him well.

His routine consists of regular walking and swimming and heavy weights training for major muscle groups – chest, back, arms, legs and shoulders – in rotation.

“It was a normal part of life – to get up and train,” de Gelder said. “I was used to the pain of being a soldier – I had already learnt through that to push through the pain.

“I didn't really need people to motivate me to do it – I was going to do it anyway. Training is about accomplishing and I could focus on that rather than sitting about and thinking about the situation I'm in. It's a release.”

Fellow gym rat Rob Bebrouth has a similarly harrowing story of trauma and exercise-driven restoration.

The 55-year-old oil and gas executive was holidaying in Samoa in September 2009 when a tsunami struck, dragging him out to sea and under the waves for several minutes.

Bebrouth suffered what he describes as a "knee deconstruction" – a gaping wound and extensive tendon and muscle damage in his left leg. After a day lying on a sheet of fibro in a makeshift hospital, the Royal Australian Air Force airlifted him to Brisbane. He spent a week in intensive care in an induced coma when his injuries turned septic. His family was told to prepare for the worst and doctors later said he would not have survived had he not been in peak form.

After six weeks on his back, Bebrouth was discharged with a leg that wouldn't bend and the advice that he was on the clock – whatever movement his knee had regained by June 30, 2010 would be as good as it got.

Accustomed to spending 90 minutes in the gym, five days a week, Bebrouth enlisted the services of a personal trainer and set about giving his goal of getting back to pre-injury form a red hot go.

“I was bloody determined to get as much bend as possible,” he said. “I didn't want to have a limp.”

The pair devised a trial and error regimen, loosely based on post-surgery exercise programs for knee reconstruction patients, incorporating kettle bells, floor work and resistance band training.

“It was the blind leading the blind,” Bebrouth said. “We tried some things that worked and some that didn't. I'm a very determined individual – but I wouldn't have got there in the time frame [without help]. The clock was ticking.”

By the time D-Day rolled around, Bebrouth had achieved 130-degree movement and had passed the acid tests of knee flexibility – lunges, squats and the rowing machine – with flying colours.

Psychology plays as large a part as physiology in achieving against-the-odds rehab results, according to Simon. If someone is motivated and fit, they're already ahead – and a dash of optimism and sheer bloody mindedness don't hurt either.

“Some people are dogged in everything they do and they take that into their rehab,” Simon said.

“You can't expect everyone will push themselves to the degree of these fellows. People that do well like them often have a positive outlook – “You've got to be able to believe that you can achieve something if you can work that hard at it.”