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Wheelchair Exercises and Fitness

  • Publish Date : 2009/02/10 - (Rev. 2016/04/13)
  • Author : Helen Hecker


Regular wheelchair exercise will help increase strength flexibility improve mobility and strengthen heart and lungs plus help control your weight.

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If you spend long hours in a wheelchair you know it can lead to uneasiness and be very uncomfortable, which is true for anyone who is disabled.

Keeping the body moving as much as possible in your wheelchair should be a regular part of your daily fitness program. This should be a priority no matter what your disability. Doing regular wheelchair exercise will help you increase your strength, flexibility, improve your mobility, strengthen your heart and lungs, and help you control your weight.

When starting or ending any workout or exercise session, it's important to take ten minutes to warm up, stretch a little but without hurting yourself and then cool down for about ten minutes. When you work out with weights you want to start slowly and gradually work up to more weight. Start with simple exercises as outlined below and then move on to some of the more difficult exercises.

Your upper body workout should include exercises that include both arms, the torso, neck, and the shoulders. However, depending on the nature of the disability, everyone's situation is different so make sure to consult with your doctor. Let the doctor know what exercises you plan to do and get his/her okay and which of the exercises are best for you and which should be avoided

Now for your fitness workout there are two types of wheelchair exercise that you'll want to use for your workout - and those are resistance training and strength training.

Resistance training: Resistance training uses large, stretchy rubber bands that are called resistance bands. Take the bands and wrap them securely around a stable object such as a door, or the arm of your wheelchair. Pull the bands towards you and then the other way away from you to give your muscles a good workout. Rubber bands can be used for pull-downs, shoulder rotations and arm and leg extensions.

Strength training: Strength training uses the lifting of 'free weights' or dumbbells. If you don't have 'free weights' or dumbbells try to find some cans of food that fit nicely in your hands. Or you might be able to find something better. Whatever you choose have it weighed. You want to start with one or two pound weights and gradually work up. Do three sets of 12 repetitions for each exercise resting between each set.

You can use TV time to lift your weights if you aren't motivated to set up a daily routine. Combine exercise with some of your favorite television shows.

Some of the benefits you'll achieve through strength training include the ability to better perform daily activities such as pushing your wheelchair, holding or carrying items and transferring in and out of your wheelchair. Disabled people or wheelchair users often have what is called an inefficient 'push'. You can easily work these muscles. By just spending a few minutes every day building up and strengthening your muscles you'll find it much easier, regardless of your disability, to do many tasks that you have difficulty with now.

Before embarking on a program it is extremely important to discuss the matter with a medical doctor, physical therapist or accredited personal trainer to establish exercise restrictions and any potential medical complications

The following observations were made by people who are themselves wheelchair users. All point out that it is necessary to be highly focused and not be discouraged. Each session should be carefully planned. This not only saves time but allows for advance decisions on which exercises are to be undertaken. They recommend always having some activities which are personally enjoyable.

One aspect of regular exercise which cannot be over-emphasized is its importance in maintaining good emotional health. People with disabilities may (like anyone else) feel angry, depressed, frustrated and confused. Regular workouts will help to fight depression.

As one wheelchair user puts it "If you can move something you can exercise." This is not to suggest that forming new positive habits as an adult is easy.

Increasing numbers of wheelchair users are adopting exercise plans. Young people especially can see that in some instances it is possible to be in a wheelchair and have a strong, healthy body.

If a person has not been physically active for sometime a transitional plan to strengthen key muscle groups and increase movement range through stretching exercises is recommended. There should be a rest day between workouts and no concentration on the same muscle groups for two consecutive sessions. Aim at a minimum of three sessions a week. At the beginning of a session it is vital to warm up and stretch gently and at its end to cool down for about ten minutes.

A fitness regime needs resistance, and strength training as well as exercises which stretch the muscles. Resistance training involves working with equipment such as expandable rubber bands. These can be used for pull-downs, shoulder rotations and arm and leg extensions. Strength training involves weights and will help make practical tasks such as pushing the wheelchair, holding items and transferring in and out of a wheelchair much easier.

Once a commitment has been made to an exercise program the next question is how, where and with whom. Equipment need not be a major expense. Soup cans, water bottles, beach and volleyballs and many household items can be used while working out. Exercise bands, medicine balls and weights are not expensive to purchase.

There are a number of wheelchair exercise machines for home use such as Vitaglide as well as hand-cyclers and other cardio equipment.

Some people will be in a position to engage a personal trainer who will be able to design suitable work-outs, teach how to use the fitness equipment properly, help with transfers from gym machines and keep the client motivated.

Many gyms are unfortunately not designed with wheelchair users in mind. In the past ten years gyms aimed exclusively at clients who use wheelchairs have been springing up in the United States. Equipment in such establishments will have been specifically selected and is likely to be highly adaptable.

People who are working out on their own at home could workout to videos specifically designed for people in wheelchairs. There is a growing list of such videos often produced by medical practitioners.

Besides these forms of exercise there are organized disability sports for those who are competitive. Included in this category are wheelchair basketball, archery, and fencing to mention a few. Then there are also many forms of wheelchair dancing.

An easy wheelchair exercise - the biceps curl:

Sit in a chair that has good back support and preferably with no arms. You can also do this in your wheelchair but may not be quite as easy depending on the kind of chair you have. Put your feet on the floor. Make sure to keep them flat and not too wide. You want to go no wider than your shoulders.

Find some dumbbells or other weights that weigh less than five pounds. Use three pounds or so to start. If that's too light you can add more weight. Something that feels comfortable. If you don't have dumbbells or hand weights then you can use cans of food or anything else that you have two of that weighs the same.

Then hold the weights in your hands down at your sides. Make sure your palms face the side of your body. One at a time bring your hand up and turn it so your palm is facing your chest. Hold this for a second or two. Then slower lower your arm down to your sides. Then do this again with the other arm. Do 12 repetitions with each arm. This is called one set. Do 3 sets but start out the first day only doing one set and then slowly add the other sets in the next few days if it feels good. Make sure to rest a minute or so between sets.

If you have difficulty applying the above exercises resistance training or strength training due to your disability or for some other reason or for an added benefit get a DVD that will help you keep fit while you sit and offer exercises from a sitting position.

Always maintain a positive attitude about your workout and while you're working out. Try to get into a good regular wheelchair exercise and fitness program that you've designed for yourself regardless of your disability. If you can move something you can exercise.

Set realistic goals and reward yourself for working out. Don't do anything you know you shouldn't. Start slowly. Keep your eye on the end result. A simple but the best wheelchair exercise and fitness program can improve your overall health, boost your immune system, get blood flowing to the brain preventing brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's and increase mobility for you. And encourage others who are disabled to exercise along with you whenever you get together for an added boost.

Reference: For more information on wheelchair exercises and travel tips for people with disabilities, go to a nurse's website specializing in travel, wheelchairs, exercise, sports and more with tips, help, advice and resources including info on wheelchair exercise DVD's

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