Sit and BE Fit!


The benefits of exercise are not restricted to people who have full mobility. In fact, if injury, disability, illness, or weight problems have limited your mobility, it is even more important to experience the mood-boosting effects of exercise. Exercise can ease depression, relieve stress and anxieties, enhance self-esteem and improve your whole outlook on life. While there are many challenges that come with having mobility issues, by adopting a creative approach, you can overcome your physical limitations and find enjoyable ways to exercise.

Limited Mobility Does Not Mean You Cannot Exercise

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that energize your mood, relieve stress, boost your self-esteem, and trigger an overall sense of well-being. If you are a regular exerciser currently sidelined with an injury, you have probably noticed how inactivity has caused your mood and energy levels to sink. This is understandable; exercise has such a powerful effect on mood it can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. However, an injury does not mean your mental and emotional health is doomed to decline. While some injuries respond best to total rest, most simply require you to reevaluate your exercise routine with help from your doctor or physical therapist.

If you have a disability, severe weight problem, chronic breathing condition, diabetes, arthritis, or another ongoing illness you may think that your health problems make it impossible for you to exercise effectively, if at all. Or perhaps you have become frail with age and are worried about falling or injuring yourself if you try to exercise. The truth is, regardless of your age, current physical condition and whether you have exercised in the past or not, there are plenty of ways to overcome your mobility issues and reap the physical, mental and emotional rewards of exercise.

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What Types of Exercise are Possible with Limited Mobility?

It is important to remember that any type of exercise will offer health benefits. Mobility issues inevitably make some types of exercises easier than others, but regardless of your physical situation, you should aim to incorporate three different types of exercise into your routines:

Cardiovascular exercises raise your heart rate and increase your endurance. These can include wheelchair pushing, hand cycling, dancing, tennis, swimming, water aerobics, or even using a punching bag.  Many people with mobility issues find exercising in water especially beneficial as it supports the body and reduces the risk of muscle or joint discomfort. Even if you use a wheelchair, it is still possible to perform cardiovascular exercise.

Strength training exercises involve using weights or other resistance to build muscle and bone mass, improve balance and prevent falls. If you have limited mobility in your legs, your focus will be on upper body strength training.

Flexibility exercises help enhance your range of motion, prevent injury, and reduce pain and stiffness. These may include stretching exercises or yoga. Even if you have limited mobility in your legs, for example, you may still benefit from stretches and flexibility exercises to prevent or delay further muscle atrophy.

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Image by Neil Kremer for PhotoAbility

Setting Yourself Up For Exercise Success

Talking to your Doctor about Exercise

Your doctor or physical therapist can help you find a suitable exercise routine. Ask:

  • How much exercise can I do each day and each week?
  • What type of exercise should I do?
  • What exercises or activities should I avoid?
  • Should I take medication at a certain time around my exercise routine?

To exercise successfully with limited mobility, illness or weight problems, start by getting medical clearance. Talk to your doctor, physical therapist, or other health care provider about activities suitable for your medical condition or mobility issue. Your doctor may even be able to recommend services aimed at helping people with limited mobility become more active, including specially designed exercise plans.

Starting an Exercise Routine

Start slow and gradually increase your activity level. Start with an activity you enjoy, go at your own pace and keep your goals manageable. Accomplishing even the smallest fitness goals will help you gain body confidence and keep you motivated.

  • Make exercise part of your daily life.Plan to exercise at the same time every day and combine a variety of exercises to keep you from getting bored.
  • Stick with it.It takes about a month for a new activity to become a habit. Write down your reasons for exercising and a list of goals and post them somewhere visible to keep you motivated. Focus on short-term goals, such as improving your mood and reducing stress, rather than goals such as weight loss, which can take longer to achieve. It is easier to stay motivated if you enjoy what you are doing, so find ways to make exercise fun. Listen to music or watch a TV show while you work out, or exercise with friends.
  • Expect ups and downs.Do not be discouraged if you skip a few days or even a few weeks. It happens. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.

Staying Safe when Exercising

  • Stop exercising if you experience pain,discomfort, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, or clammy hands. Listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury.
  • Avoid activity involving an injured body part.If you have an upper body injury, exercise your lower body while the injury heals, and vice versa. When exercising after an injury has healed, start back slowly, using lighter weights and less resistance
  • Warm up, stretch, and cool down.Warm up with a few minutes of light activity such as arm swinging and shoulder rolls, followed by some light stretching (avoid deep stretches when your muscles are cold). After your exercise routine, whether it is cardiovascular, strength training, or flexibility exercise, cool down with a few more minutes of light activity and deeper stretching.
  • Drink plenty of water.Your body performs best when it is properly hydrated.
  • Wear appropriate clothing,such as supportive footwear and comfortable clothing that will not restrict your movement.


Overcoming Mental and Emotional Barriers to Exercise

As well as the physical challenges you face, you may also experience mental or emotional barriers to exercising. It is common for people to feel self-conscious about their weight, disability, illness, or injury and want to avoid working out in public places. Some older people find that they are fearful about falling or otherwise injuring themselves.

  • Do not focus on your mobility or health issue.Instead of worrying about the activities you cannot enjoy, concentrate on finding activities that you can.
  • Be creative.The more physical challenges you face the more creative you will need to be to find an exercise routine that works for you. If you used to enjoy jogging or cycling, for example and they are no longer possible, be prepared to try new exercises. With some experimenting, it is very possible that you will find something you enjoy just as much.
  • Be proud when you make the effort to exercise, even if it is not very successful at first. It will get easier the more you practice.


Barrier to exercise Suggestion
I am self-conscious about my weight, injury, or disability. Exercise does not have to mean working out in a crowded gym. You can try exercising early in the morning to avoid the crowds or skip the gym altogether. If you can afford it, a personal trainer will come to your home or workout with you at a private studio. Walking, swimming or exercising in a class with others who have similar physical limitations can make you feel less self-conscious. There are also plenty of inexpensive ways to exercise privately at home.
I am scared of injury. Choose low-risk activities, such as chair-bound exercises and warm-up and cool-down correctly to avoid muscle strains and other injuries.
I cannot motivate myself. Explain your exercise goals to friends and family and ask them to support and encourage you. Better still; find a friend to exercise with. You can motivate each other and turn your workouts into a social event.
I am not coordinated or athletic. Choose an exercise that requires little or no skill, such as walking, pushing a wheelchair, cycling on a stationary or hand bike, lifting free weights or swimming.
Exercise is boring. But video games are fun. If traditional exercise is not for you, try playing. Activity-based video games, known as “exergames.” Games that simulate bowling, tennis, or boxing, for example, can all be played seated in a chair or wheelchair and are fun ways to burn calories and elevate your heart rate, whether playing alone or with friends.


How to Exercise with an Injury or Disability

Since people with disabilities or long-term injuries have a tendency to live less-active lifestyles, it can be even more important for you to exercise on a regular basis.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults with disabilities should aim for:

  • At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity cardiovascular activity (or a combination of both), with each workout lasting for at least 10 minutes.
  • Two or more sessions a week of moderate, or high-intensity strength-training activities involving all the major muscle groups.

If your disability or injury makes it impossible for you to meet these guidelines, aim to engage in regular physical activity according to your ability, and avoid inactivity whenever possible.

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Image by Tyler Porter Photography for Photoability

Workouts for Upper Body Injury or Disability

Depending on the location and nature of your injury or disability, you may still be able to walk, use an elliptical machine or even swim using flotation aids. If not, try using a hand cycle or pedal exerciser for cardiovascular exercise.

When it comes to strength training, your injury or disability may limit your use of free weights and resistance bands or may just mean you have to reduce the weight or level of resistance. Consult with your doctor or physical therapist for safe ways to work around the injury or disability, and make use of exercise machines in a gym or health club, especially those that focus on the lower body.

Isometric Exercises

If you experience joint problems from arthritis or an injury, for example, a doctor or physical therapist may recommend isometric exercises to help maintain muscle strength or prevent further muscle deterioration. Isometric exercises require you to push against immovable objects or another body part without changing the muscle length or moving the joint.

Electro Muscle Stimulation

If you have experienced muscle loss from an injury, disability or long period of immobility, electro muscle stimulation may be used to increase blood circulation and range of motion in a muscle. Muscles are gently contracted using electrical current transmitted via electrodes placed on the skin.


How to Exercise in a Chair or Wheelchair

Chair-bound exercises are ideal for people with lower body injuries or disabilities, those with weight problems or diabetes and frail seniors looking to reduce their risk of falling. Cardiovascular and flexibility chair exercises can help improve posture and reduce back pain, while any chair exercise can help alleviate body sores caused by sitting in the same position for long periods of time. They are also a great way to squeeze in a workout while you are watching TV.

  • If possible, choose a chair that allows you to keep your knees at 90 degrees when seated. If you are in a wheelchair, securely apply the brakes or otherwise immobilize the chair.
  • Try to sit up tall while exercising and use your abs to maintain good posture.
  • If you suffer from high blood pressure, check your blood pressure before exercising and avoid chair exercises that involve weights.
  • Test your blood sugar before and after exercise if you take diabetes medication that can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

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Cardiovascular exercise in a wheelchair

Wheelchair Sports

If you want to add competition to your workouts, several organizations offer adaptive exercise programs and competitions for sports such as basketball, rugby, hand cycling, racing, kayaking, tennis and weightlifting. See the resources section at the end of this article.

Chair aerobics, a series of seated repetitive movements, will raise your heart rate and help you burn calories, as will many strength training exercises when performed at a fast pace with a high number of repetitions. In fact, any rapid repetitive movements offer aerobic benefits and can also help to loosen up stiff joints.

  • Wrap a lightweight resistance band under your chair (or bed or couch) and perform rapid resistance exercises, such as chest presses, for a count of one second up and two seconds down. Try several different exercises to start, with 20 to 30 reps per exercise, and gradually increase the number of exercises, reps and total workout time as your endurance improves.
  • Simple air-punching, with or without hand weights, is an easy cardio exercise from a seated position, and can be fun when playing along with a Nintendo Wii or Xbox 360 video game.
  • Many swimming pools and health clubs offer pool-therapy programs with access for wheelchair users. If you have some leg function, try a water aerobics class.
  • Some gyms offer wheelchair-training machines that make arm-bicycling and rowing possible. For a similar exercise at home, some portable pedal machines can be used with the hands when secured to a table in front of you.


Strength Training Exercise in a Chair or Wheelchair

Many traditional upper body exercises can be done from a seated position using dumbbells, resistant bands or anything that is weighted and fits in your hand, like soup cans.

  • Perform exercises such as shoulder presses, bicep curls, and triceps extensions using heavier weights and more resistance than for cardio exercises. Aim for two to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for each exercise, adding weight and more exercises as your strength improves.
  • Resistance bands can be attached to furniture, a doorknob or your chair. Use these for pull-downs, shoulder rotations, and arm and leg-extensions.
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Image by Dave Cameron for PhotoAbility

Flexibility Exercise in a Chair or Wheelchair

Chair Yoga

Most yoga poses can be modified or adapted depending on your physical mobility, weight, age, medical condition and any injury or disability. Chair yoga is ideal if you have a disability, injury, or a medical condition such arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoporosis or multiple sclerosis.

If you are in a wheelchair or have limited mobility in your legs, stretching throughout the day can help reduce pain and pressure on your muscles that often accompanies sitting for long periods.

Stretching while lying down or practicing yoga in a chair can also help increase flexibility and improve your range of motion.

To ensure yoga is practiced correctly, it is best to learn by attending group classes, hiring a private teacher or following video instructions.


More Helpful Tips Limited Mobility Fitness

Easy Ways to Start Exercising: Making Exercise a Fun Part of Your Everyday Life
Exercise and Fitness as You Age: Exercise Plans to Get Fit as You Age
Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief: Practices for Improving Emotional and Physical Well-Being
How to Practice Yoga and Tai Chi: Tips on Using Relaxation Exercises to Relieve Stress


Resources and References

Facts and Figures

Manual wheelchair use, exercise and calorie burning examined – A person who uses a manual wheelchair can burn up to 120 calories in half an hour while wheeling at two mph on a flat surface, which is three times as much as someone doing the same action in a motorized wheelchair.  Visit the link to see how many calories other wheelchair activities can burn.


Getting Motivated to Exercise

Overcoming Barriers to Physical Activity – Practical tips for overcoming common barriers to exercise.
Push Past Your Obstacles – How to overcome the obstacles you have for not exercising.


Warming Up and Stretching Exercises

Stretching Exercises for Wheelchair Users (PDF) – Document demonstrating how to perform basic stretches before and after exercising.
Seated Stretching – Instructional videos on various seated stretching techniques.


Exercises in a Chair or Wheelchair

Chair Calisthenics (PDF) – Calisthenics designed for diabetics, but can be used by anyone looking for a seated workout.
Chair Aerobics – Aerobic workout designed to be performed in a seated position.
Seated Total Body Strength – A total body workout that can be done while seated and targets both the upper and lower body. It can be adapted to accommodate any injury or disability.
Seated Upper Body Workout – A strength workout that can be done in a chair or wheelchair.
How to Exercise If You Are a Wheelchair User – Benefits and tips for exercising in a wheelchair.
Wheelchair Yoga – Sample poses that can be performed in a wheelchair.
Locate Chair Yoga Teachers – Find chair yoga classes and instructors in the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland and several other countries.


Exercise for Those with Injuries or Disabilities

Rehabilitation and Exercises – Strengthening exercises for various parts of the body as well as information on stretching, core stability and Pilates.
Videos – From NCPAD, a directory of instructional exercise, fitness and sports videos designed for people with various disabilities, including Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, stroke survivors and veterans with limb loss.
Exercise and Fitness – Information, links and videos from the Model System Information Network.
FSCIRC’s A-Z Resource Listing (Exercise) – Find articles, programs, videos and web sites devoted to exercise from a wheelchair.
Reeve Foundation’s Staying Fit Without Leaving Home – A good set of fitness tips that can be used without leaving home.
Physiotherapy Exercises – Free tool to create exercise booklets for individuals with injuries and disabilities.  Contains stretching, strength training and aerobic exercise broken down by injury level.
Discover Accessible Fitness – Free guide to accessible fitness.  View online or download the .pdf version.
14 Weeks to a Healthier You! – Free, personalized, web-based physical activity and nutrition program for people with mobility limitations, chronic health conditions and physical disabilities.


Finding Adaptive Exercise and Sports Programs

FSCIRC’s A-Z Resource Listing – Find Florida programs in exercise, rehabilitation, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, hand cycling, wheelchair softball, and many other sports and recreation activities.
Programs by Location – Directory of exercise and sports programs available for people with disabilities in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia.
Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA – WASUSA is dedicated to providing adaptive sport opportunities for individuals with a disability. Find a chapter and explore their events and programs.


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