An exercise program should be unique to each person and their fitness capabilities. Staying active as a wheelchair user is easier when your fitness routine is fun, engaging, and meaningful to you. In this blog, we discuss several exercise tips from our physical therapists to help wheelchair users enhance and maintain cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health.
Keep your upper body strong and flexible
Propelling yourself in a wheelchair requires adequate upper extremity strength, specifically the chest and shoulder muscles. While these muscles must be strong enough to do the work, they are also prone to overuse and tightness. Balancing upper body strength with proper flexibility training is important to prevent pain and injury. Implement an upper body fitness routine that is composed of strengthening exercises, stretching, mobility training, and rest days.
Don’t skip resistance training
Resistance training keeps your muscles strong and can be achieved in multiple ways. Whether you use weights, resistance bands, or body weight, it’s important to have dedicated days in your fitness routine focused on strength training.
Dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and weight machines are all types of equipment used to perform weightlifting. There are multiple ways to modify various lifts so that they can be performed from a seated position in your chair – even Olympic lifts can be modified to meet your needs! You may be able to transfer yourself to a seated weight machine or inquire about machines that adapt for use from your chair.
Resistance bands come in different materials, levels, and sizes making them extremely versatile and easy to use from just about anywhere. There is research to suggest that using resistance bands is as effective at facilitating strength gains as other forms of weight training, making them a great option. The bands can be anchored to your chair, around a sturdy pole, or with special mounts that close in doorways. Resistance bands are also unique in that you can adjust how much resistance you feel based on the tension of the band and where you place your grip.
Body weight exercise
Last but certainly not least, you can use your body weight for strength training. Practicing pushups from within your chair is a very functional exercise that helps you reposition yourself throughout the day. It’s also a great precursor exercise in preparation for transfers between surfaces. Sitting on a flat surface, like a couch or bed, weight shift laterally onto your forearm, and push yourself back to sitting upright for a compound movement that targets your core, shoulder, and arm muscles simultaneously. The same is true for lying on your stomach and propping yourself into a plank, which can be modified based on your physical abilities. For those looking for even more of a challenge, there are also various ways to perform pull-ups from a seated position.
Find aerobic activities you enjoy
To maintain cardiovascular health, find aerobic activities that are enjoyable for you. Looking to switch up your cardio routine? Try swimming, rowing, seated boxing, wheelchair sprints, or arm cycling. There are also many sports teams where wheelchair users can participate in basketball, softball, tenniss, and more. Team sports are a great way to maintain cardiovascular health and many people even prefer them to more solitary fitness activities.
Challenge yourself under the guidance of a licensed PT
You don’t have to feel stuck doing the same seated exercises over and over again. In fact, it’s important to push yourself a little more each time you work out. Consulting with a physical therapist is a great way to build a customized exercise program that addresses your physical needs in a safe and sustainable way.
1. Fitness advice for wheelchair users. NHS. Updated June 1, 2022. Accessed July 20, 2022.
2. Lopes JSS, Machado AF, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Cavina AP, Pastre CM. Effects of training with elastic resistance versus conventional resistance on muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis. SAGE Open Med. 2019 Feb 19;7:2050312119831116.