Having had a career as an elite athlete abruptly ended through a freak accident, Drew Graham now dedicates himself to inspiring others through exercise.

Drew’s Pop Up Gym – a dedicated facility in the North of England for people with spinal and neurological injuries, alongside a number of outreach sessions across the region to bring the service closer to those who need it – illustrates his passionate advocacy of fitness as a means of rehabilitation.

Research has shown the benefits exercise can bring to people who have suffered brain injuries, with improved weight and stress management, emotional regulation, and increased strength, energy and attention all being directly linked to regular fitness sessions.

One report concluded that brain injury survivors, who engaged in exercise three times per week for 30 minute intervals, reported less depression, improved perception of physical abilities and increased community integration in comparison to those who did not exercise regularly.

And it is through Drew’s own experience that he has created a gym and associated sessions solely for people who have mobility or paralysis issues as a result of a brain or spinal injury, to increase the accessibility to fitness and avoid the feeling of being the ‘odd one out’ in mainstream gym facilities.

It was back in September 2014 that Drew, while training for a triathlon in the United States, jumped into a lake and broke his spine leaving him quadriplegic.

He spent three months in a US hospital and benefitted from its ultra-modern rehabilitation centre – but it was when he returned to the UK that he realised the absence of such specialist facilities for patients in this country.

“There are gyms that people with wheelchairs or disabilities can go to, but there is usually a very limited amount of equipment specifically for wheelchair users, if any at all. I often felt like the odd one out, like everyone is looking at me, and that can be very off-putting for people who could be getting the benefit of exercise as part of their recovery,” said Drew.

“The gyms that are most accessible charge anything from £60 to £100 a session and that is too much for most people. They may be able to go once or twice, but it can’t be a regular thing as costs mount up. I wanted to create something where people like me would feel comfortable, where I can exercise and get the benefit of that, and be able to socialise with other people too – statistics show that 20 per cent of wheelchair users are socially isolated, so that social aspect is hugely important.

“I thought that instead of whinging about the lack of these types of places, I’d create one myself – and the fact that we are pretty much at capacity for all of our sessions tells its own story about how much somewhere like this was needed.”

Since opening a year ago, Pop Up Gym, which operates on a not-for-profit basis, has proved a popular resource for people with brain injuries across the North of England, many of whom travel for miles to visit Drew’s site in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

Those who are recovering from strokes are among the most frequent users, and already there have been many examples of strong progress through using the gym in addition to their programmes of physio and other therapies.

Pop Up Gym, as well as offering gym equipment and tailored sessions, is keen to promote a holistic support system to its users, working closely with other professionals and organisations to give people the best possible chance of recovery through an effective rehabilitation programme.

Significant investment has been made in fitness equipment to aid recovery from paralysis and immobility with functional electrical stimulation (FES) bikes alongside a host of other equipment, including arm bikes, upright rowers and wheelchair accessible weights machines.

Its equipment is valued at over £100,000, making it one of the most advanced specialist fitness facilities of its kind with an array of state-of-the-art equipment. And at £10 a session, it has been priced to be accessible to anyone who needs it.

The nature of people’s injuries and medical needs will determine how much physical activity they can do. But experts have highlighted the benefits of cardiovascular workouts (through using machines like the bikes or rowers), strength training to challenge muscles (which can involve use of weights and resistance bands), and flexibility exercises, to help stimulate brain injury patients.

“We have a lot of regulars who have had strokes, and people who have other neurological injuries, and we have trainers here who can help and support them. Through my own experience I understand the road to recovery and the many challenges you face on a daily basis. It is so rewarding for the whole team to see the progress people make over the course of weeks and months,” said Drew.

“For example, we can use our machines to help people strengthen their weak side or weaker parts of their body, our team are able to help them regain and re-learn the strength and co-ordination they once had.

“There was one guy recently who had a stroke and he couldn’t drive, gradually he has been able to get to the point where he is driving again and it is such a great feeling that we have helped him with that.

“The fact we are also helping with the social isolation so many people feel is very important to me. This is something that is widespread among people with brain injuries or other disabilities, but here we have created a great community.

“Our youngest gym user is 18 – anyone from the age of 16 can come here – and the oldest is 79. There are all ages, all backgrounds, everyone is different but they have things in common too through their shared experience.

“We have lots of laughs and help people through the difficult times that of course arise. Exercise is so important and we are here to support and encourage all the way.”

Drew continually seeks to highlight the benefits of exercise as part of the rehabilitation process, and believes gyms which cater for people in wheelchairs should be much more commonplace.

With his own fundraising efforts prior to opening Pop Up Gym securing over £50,000, and additional support being received from the likes of the Matt Hampson Foundation – established to help support and inspire seriously injured people through the means of sport and physical exercise – Drew believes there is scope to develop the concept further across the UK.

“Things do have to change with regard to provision for people in wheelchairs, I think it is a great shame there are not more Pop Up Gyms out there. We would love to operate from places across the country, but that’s in the much longer term – there is a need for these type of centres now to help people with their recovery, and I would love to see greater numbers of gyms for people with disabilities in a developed country like ours,” he said.

“Exercise using the kinds of specialist equipment we have can be very important, and in this kind of environment too, it was hugely important for me and we see it with the people who come to us.

“The NHS does its best but there just isn’t the funding available for this sort of thing, and private sector gyms are often too expensive for people to access. Operating as a charity works well in this sector and gives the opportunity to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

“Hopefully we can inspire others to follow our lead and see the need to open gym access up to people in wheelchairs, as this can play a big role in recovering from brain and spinal injuries.

“It’s a great pleasure to be able to support people in the way we are and to see the benefit and enjoyment they get through coming into the gym, but I do hope that becomes much more widespread and common in the UK as it is certainly needed.”

Pop Up Gym was recently named as one of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors’ Charity of the Year for 2019 and will benefit from the firm’s annual fundraising drive. Read more here