How You Can Exercise in a Wheelchair

Disabled woman with ropes
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You've heard that everyone should be exercising, but what if you have a disability? It's hard enough taking care of the basics if you're in a wheelchair or have other physical disabilities, much less exercise. However, exercise is even more important for people with disabilities. It keeps your body strength, gives you energy, improves stress and can help reduce fatigue. The key is to find the right kind of exercise for your situation.

If You're in a Wheelchair

Generally, wheelchair users can focus on resistance exercises to improve your upper body strength and help reduce your chances of injury. You should always talk to your doctor or physical therapist to get clearance and guidance for your best options.

Workout Resources

  • Workout videos: One place to start is with videos. The NCHPAD has a list of wheelchair exercise videos and may find some ideas for exercises in this Seated Strength Workout or this ​Seated Upper Body Workout.
  • Specialized Equipment: If you're interested in doing more, you might want to think about investing in some specialized exercise equipment. There are many new strength training machines available for people in wheelchairs, as well as hand-cyclers and other cardio equipment.
  • Working Your Upper Body: But, don't let a lack of special equipment keep you from your workout. If you have upper body mobility, try lifting your arms straight out in front of you, hold for a few seconds then lower. Next, lift your arms out to the sides (stopping at shoulder level), hold, then lower. Do both of these exercise 15 to 20 times and, as you get stronger, hold light hand weights.
  • Wheelchair Sports: If you're competitive, another option is to try organized sports. Wheelchair Sports can help you find events near you that include basketball, archery, fencing and more. If you need help with training for a specific sport or event, the NCHPAD can help you find fitness programs in your area.
  • Keeping Your Body Flexible: Stretching and flexibility are important too for reducing the chance of injury. Specifically, you should be stretching all the major muscles in your upper body, including your shoulders, arms, back, and neck.

If you have a disability, you have to work much harder and be much more creative about exercise. Talking to your doctor, physical therapist or other experts can help you find activities to keep your body strong and active.

Sight/Hearing Impaired

People who are sight or hearing impaired have plenty of obstacles to overcome in daily life, and that goes double when you add the element of exercise. However, with the advent of blind athletes like Marla Runyon, who ran in the 2000 Olympic games, more and more people are getting involved in sports and exercise.

The specific concerns for the sight- and hearing-impaired involve exercising safely. Like any new exerciser, your first concern should be starting slowly with cardio exercise and a weight training routine and making sure you are using proper form. One option is to join a health club and check out their personal training options. A trainer can help guide you through both the gym as well as the equipment available to you. He or she can show you how to correctly do the exercises, how to use the cardio machines safely and put you on a routine that will work for you. If you like the outdoors, consider getting involved in sports. The Association of Blind Athletes and Deaf Sports Federation are good resources for the sight or hearing impaired. They offer information about organizations you can join and specific ways to workout safely and effectively. Guiding Eyes is another option if you're wondering whether a guide dog is right for you.

Living with a disability can be challenging and exercise can feel like just another burden to add to the mix. However, with a little guidance, you can be on your way to a healthier and less stressful life.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."