How Adaptive Fitness is Helping Joanna Bonilla Fight for Recovery

Editor’s Note:  Fitness enthusiast Joanna Bonilla hadn’t been feeling her best when one day, she began experiencing back pain and weakness in her legs. Her mother took her to the emergency room, but by the time the doctors had finished routine testing, she could no longer feel her lower limbs. An MRI revealed a spinal cord injury that doctors attributed to her lupus. She left the hospital in a wheelchair, but with the support of her family, physical therapists, and DPI Adaptive Fitness, she is hopeful she’ll walk again one day.


When I became paralyzed, I was in and out of the hospital for around three years. After that, I was finally able to finish a full cycle of physical therapy. I asked my therapist how I could continue to progress outside of PT, and she recommended Devon Palermo at DPI Adaptive Fitness. I was an active person prior to my injury and would go to the gym for an hour and a half nearly every day.

I had been missing that part of my life, but it was hard to get back into it with an injury.

I wasn't brave enough to take that step by myself and deal with people staring and not knowing how to properly adapt the machines to my new situation.

Three years ago, I met Devon Palermo, the founder of DPI Adaptive Fitness, and it was like someone finally understood what I was going through. Since I started working out with him, I not only feel physically better but mentally better as well.

I'm still using a wheelchair, but recently, Devon and my physical therapist felt that my core muscles and hip flexors were strong enough to try brace walking. So, we've been working on that, which I never thought would be in the picture so soon!


DPI:  Customized Fitness for All

Devon has a background in physical therapy. While he was working in the field, he noticed that when people's insurance ran out, many patients didn’t continue exercising on their own. Realizing how important physical activity was for the wellbeing of his patients, he began helping them do simple exercises at their own homes or at a small gym at his home. The idea kept growing, and when he saw there was enough interest, he opened DPI, a gym dedicated to adaptive fitness in Fairfax, Virginia.


All of the trainers are great. When you go into the gym, you see all the machinery you'd see at any other gym. The trainers take the time to talk to you and adapt your workout to your goals and current level.

Every single workout is individually designed for each person.

As the director, Devon oversees the program for every client that comes in. He designs each program and then turns them over to the trainers.

DPI’s motto is, “Fitness for anyone at any level,” and that really is what they do. We have stroke survivors, traumatic brain injury clients, SCI patients, and many others. It's a great mixture, and it allows us to unite and share our experiences while we're working out.

Punching for Body Control and Confidence

When I first got back in the gym, I started doing weight training for my upper body because I wanted to be able to transfer myself in and out of my wheelchair and be confident doing it. It was scary at first, so that was my number one goal for the first couple of months.

We were doing one-on-one sessions for a while, and then Devon started a boxing class. I didn’t think I was ready for group classes yet, but he convinced me, and it was the best decision.

Boxing is such a great workout.

Devon has adapted it so much that I'm literally working every muscle in my back, core, and arms, and that has given me added confidence and body control.

Think You Can’t? Think Again!

At DPI, no one ever says, "I can't," including the trainers. Even if they know it will be difficult to adapt a workout to a certain client, they never say they can’t do it. Instead, they take the necessary time to find a way.

That attitude rubs off on the gym members and encourages us to figure things out instead of saying, “I can’t.”

This transfers to my day-to-day life as well. I thought I couldn’t bake anymore since my injury because of the way my kitchen is set up. But I took that attitude out of my head, thanks to my experience at DPI, and now I am able to do the baking I was afraid to do before.

The Difference Between PT and DPI

In physical therapy, you typically set specific goals with your therapist. For example, you might want to learn how to transfer from your chair at 10 inches. That's a goal that you set and work toward, and when you reach it, you have a tangible result. At DPI, you make small improvements that aren't always obvious or apparent. I may be getting stronger, but my muscles won't necessarily appear bigger.

I won’t always see a difference in the mirror, but I will certainly feel it.


The Benefits of Adaptive Fitness

Being active is another way to release all the stress and frustration we have from being injured. It lets you be "normal" for the duration of the workout, and you forget that you have an injury. You're able to do what you did before your injury, and all that frustration goes away. You feel good after a workout because you're sore, and you have a sense of accomplishment. When you put yourself in an environment where other people understand what you're going through but still treat you as a "normal" person, it gives you that confidence of knowing you're able to do whatever you want.

Physical activity will also keep you out of the doctor's office. Not only do you start feeling better, but it motivates you to eat healthier as well. Spinal cord injury patients sometimes have troubles sleeping, but being active wears you out to the point that you're able to have a good night's sleep. Overall, being active just makes you feel good.

If you're in a funk, get in a gym for at least a month. I promise you will feel different, and you'll never stop going.

A Word From Devon

Editor’s Note:  Wheel:Life also spoke with Devon Palermo, founder and director of DPI Adaptive Fitness. Here’s what he had to say about the importance of fitness for wheelchair users.

Devon-Joanna-wheelchair-parking lot

“I think depending on the individual and diagnoses, a focus on continued neural recovery, improving or maintaining overall fitness, or even initiating a safe adaptive fitness program can reap many benefits on mind and body. An adaptive fitness program like the ones we offer at DPI Adaptive fitness can help improve motivation, confidence and mental well being just through natural endorphin release alone. It can help strengthen imbalances in muscle for postural use or limbs with paresis. It can improve muscle and cardiovascular endurance. It will help decrease the possibility of secondary complications that could arise like hypertension, obesity, depression and other issues. More and more research has been coming out proving adaptive fitness strategies like the ones we utilize at DPI Adaptive Fitness have been effective in improving all mentioned above which in return encourages an even more active wheelchair user.” -Devon Palermo, Director, DPI Adaptive Fitness

Editor’s Note:  If you’re interested in working out at DPI Adaptive Fitness or would like more information, visit

All information contained in this article was extracted from an interview with Joanna Bonilla and email communication with Devon Palermo.

About the Authorbetsy-bailey-headshot

Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.

Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Article topics

Copyright © 2022 Wheel:Life

This Wheel-Life website is owned and operated by Comfort Medical, LLC.  
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram