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Alex McKinnon: Fitness, tech and his biggest health challenges

Former NRL player Alex McKinnon reveals his health tips

Alex Mkinnon pushing the wheels of his wheelchair across a room
Alex Mkinnon pushing the wheels of his wheelchair across a room

He’s the NRL hero who’s been forced to face his toughest challenge off the footy field after a tackle in 2014 went wrong, leaving him a quadriplegic.

Since then, Alex has focused his energy on improving his movements, smashing doctors' expectations with his health and motivating others through public speaking. Last year, he married his high-school sweetheart Teigan and 2018 is set to be his biggest year yet, with the couple expecting their first child in October.

We sat down with Alex to get the low-down on how he keeps fit, the technology that helps him stay healthy and the upcoming arrival of his new bub.

Alex Mckinnon with his wife Tegan at a red carpet event

The Check Up (TCU): Can you give us a bit of a run down on what your average day looks like?

Alex: I wake up at five and my carer arrives, helps me through my morning routine of toileting, showering and dressing. This takes about two hours.

From eight to ten on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I have physiotherapy. This includes strength, flexibility, prevention and rehab exercises. My focus is on maintaining great health and muscle atrophy because this improves quality of life – and I’m continually pushing for improvement.

Between ten and three, I’m usually working from home prepping for keynote corporate speaking engagements, replying or communicating with businesses, scheduling Teigan’s and my week, completing my business course and also researching for my appearances with Fox Sports.

I usually schedule in any speaking engagements, visits or meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, so I feel fresh and don’t miss my physiotherapy.

When I’m at home, I’m fully independent. This means I can get my own food, go to the toilet and even drive. I recently passed my driving assessment, so I’m back behind the wheel!

Of an evening, Teigan puts me to bed which takes around ten minutes. I’m very lucky that Teigan is able to put me to bed because it gives us the freedom to be extremely flexible with our life - especially at night time.

It’s hard to compare my ability now to what it used to be, but I have to remember how far I've come

TCU: What does your fitness regime look like?

Alex: On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I exercise with the assistance of my physio. This involves a modified workout and I use a forearm walker. I also use electrical simulation on my inactive muscles as this helps maintain my muscle mass and prevents pressure ulcers.

Another big focus for me is to improve my independence, so I’m working on my transferring ability. This means exercises that have me lifting myself to release pressure, balancing myself while seated and building my core strength.

TCU: Has the way you exercise changed since your injury in 2014?

Alex: Honestly, it’s pretty similar. I’m still maintaining a healthy balance between training for muscle improvement, independence and quality of life.

One challenge when it comes to exercising has been establishing goals and adjusting my ego. For example, when I was playing rugby league I was able to bench press 145kg, one rep. Compare this to when I first got injured - I couldn't even move my arms! Now, I can bench eight kilos, one rep.

It’s hard to compare my ability now to what it used to be, but it’s all about adjusting my mindset. I have to remind myself to be conscious of how far I have come since I first got injured and be aware of how lucky I am.

TCU: What types of technology do you use to help you stay fit?

Alex: The main piece of technology I use is called a functional electric stimulation (FES) device. This piece of tech sends electrical pulses which trigger muscle movement into the muscles that I can’t fully activate by myself; mostly I use it to help myself stand with a forearm walker.

FES helps improve my blood circulation, contract my muscles and stop the muscles that I can’t control from wasting away. It also has the ability to prevent pressure injuries, reduces spasms, can help reduce pain and improve my bone density.

Aside from FES, I use a calorie counting application to monitor the amount of protein and carbohydrates I consume daily. This helps me maintain a healthy diet and body weight. After researching the recommended daily intake for someone living with a SCI (spinal cord injury), I usually aim for around 1,500 calories each day – much less than I used to consume.

TCU: Footy has obviously been a huge part of your life and passion. Do you still have that deep emotional connection to the game?

Alex: I’ve loved rugby league since that day I was born. I grew up in Aberdeen NSW and I spent every afternoon at the local ground named after my grandfather. My relationship with NRL was definitely damaged when I got injured and I had a lot of frustration around it because I didn’t get to achieve what I thought I could have achieved.

But, I know I’m very lucky to achieve what I did in rugby league and I honestly still enjoy watching it as a fan and working in the media side of the game.

Alex Mckinnon receiving rehabilitation for his injury

TCU: I noticed you write about NRL up-and-comers and you’ve included your team picks for 2018 on your blog. Who do you think will take out the premiership this year?

Alex: I honestly thought that the Parramatta Eels, North Queensland Cowboys, Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters were going to be the standout performers this year, but after the first few games I’m not sure they will be.

If I had to pick a team to win this year’s premiership, I’d have to say Penrith Panthers would be my selection.

TCU: Since your injury, how important has mental health and keeping a positive headspace been to help you get to where you are today?

Alex: In my eyes, it’s about creating a balance in your life and being conscious of your thoughts, your physical health, your daily routine and your life demands.

I find that educating myself on my own circumstance has been the most important part to staying positive. This has helped me understand what I can control, so I can give myself the best chance at life.
Meditation and practising gratitude also plays a massive role in my day to day routine, health and happiness. I usually take time every day to meditate and reflect on where I am on my journey.

I’ve found since the injury, I thoroughly enjoy the simple things in life a lot more - from a cup of coffee to a good conversation or even simply getting some sunlight.

TCU: On your wedding day, you managed what you thought was impossible – standing up for the entire 45-minute ceremony. How did you prepare and how do you think you did it on the day?

Right from when I first got injured, the big life moments like my wedding, being an active father and travelling were at the forefront of my mind.

My wedding day was easily the best day of my life; it was honestly magical. I had been training and preparing myself to stand at the altar for four years. In my eyes, I just wanted to give my wife Teigan a normal wedding and luckily, I was able to not fall over in front of everyone of our big day!

Alex Mckinnon and his wife Tegan on their wedding day

TCU: You talk on your blog a lot about ‘wins’ and how these wins can change – depending on what life throws at you. What’s your next ‘win’?

At the moment, I’m focusing on improving my muscle mass to prevent pressure sores, educating myself on my overall health (diet, supplements and core equipment) and – finally - managing a balance between working, prehab/rehab and a quality life.

I feel like my ‘wins’ move quite frequently because I am very conscious of what I’m trying to achieve and acknowledge how fortunate I am to be able to continue to improve.

TCU: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I see myself continuing to grow as a person. Teigan is pregnant at the moment so five years down the track will mean a four year old will be running around and it makes me smile thinking about it.

I see myself in good health and continuing to be the best I can be by taking control of the controllable in my life. There are also some incredible trials going on now for Spinal Cord Injuries and in five years’ time I believe you will see people, including myself recover from a spinal cord injury.

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