Wheelchair Exercises

The benefits of exercise are not restricted to people who have full mobility. If injury, disability, illness, or weight problems have limited your mobility, it’s even more important to experience all the beneficial effects of exercise.  Exercise can improve your fitness (especially in the cardio-vascular area), strength, flexibility, and may help improve your mobility.  It will help with weight issues.  As an added bonus, instead of a free set of steak knives, exercise can:

ease depression
relieve stress
relieve anxiety
enhance self-esteem
improve your whole outlook on life

Exercise promotes wellbeing. All too often long spells in a wheelchair can lead to discomfort. So-much-so that there have been a number of studies aimed at developing a method that would quantify seating discomfort experienced by wheelchair users. Two of which are the Wheelchair Seating Discomfort Assessment Tool (WcS-DAT), and Tool for Assessing Wheelchair dis-Comfort (TAWC). No matter what chair you sit in it will eventually become uncomfortable. Doing exercises while seated can improve the level of comfort, and can help to extend the duration of that comfort period.

With added strength and mobility and just feeling better generally, you are likely to be more active and be out and about when previously it was 'just all too hard'.

Types of exercise

Any type of exercise will offer health benefits. Mobility issues will make some forms of exercise easier than others, but whatever your physical situation, you should attempt to include the three different types of exercise:

Cardiovascular:  These raise your heart rate and increase your endurance. Try cycling, tennis, swimming, water aerobics, or aqua-jogging. 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’re confined to a wheelchair, it’s still possible to perform cardiovascular exercise.

Strength training:  These involve using weights or other resistance to build muscle and bone mass, improve balance, and prevent falls. Resistance training is more beneficial than cardio workouts for fat loss. If you have limited mobility in your legs, your focus will be on upper body strength training. Similarly, if you have a shoulder injury, for example, your focus will be more on strength training your legs and abs.  Be Warned: There is usually only ONE correct way to exercise with weights, and MANY incorrect ways.  The incorrect ways can result in at best, wasted effort, and at worst, injury and strains.  Get professional advice before embarking on weight training.

Powerlifting: Powerlifting, a specialised, focussed part of strength training, is very good for building muscle and burning fat. It also strengthens your skeleton and reduces the risk of injury during other sports or activities. Powerlifting also has a long term effect on your metabolism.

The equipment used in Powerlifting is the Bench, the Bar, and the Discs. The bench must be sturdy. The bed of the bench must be flat and level. The most common Discs used in Powerlifting come in 50kg, 25kg, 20kg, 15kg, 10kg and smaller sizes. The diameter of the largest disc is 45cm. Competition powerlifting is very popular.

Bodybuilding: Bodybuilding is the use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one's musculature. In competitive amateur and professional bodybuilding, bodybuilders appear in lineups doing specified poses, and later perform individual posing routines, for a panel of judges who rank competitors based on criteria such as symmetry, muscularity, and conditioning. Bodybuilders prepare for competition through a combination of dehydration, fat loss, oils, and tanning (or tanning lotions) which make their muscular definition more distinct. Some well-known bodybuilders include Charles Atlas, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Lou Ferrigno. Bodybuilding is very popular with women also.

Bodybuilders use three main strategies to maximize musculature.

Strength training through weights or elastic/hydraulic resistance.

Specialized nutrition, incorporating extra protein and supplements where necessary.

Adequate rest, including sleep and recuperation between workouts.

Creative Commons licence text.

The section above on bodybuilding was sourced, in part, from the wikipedia page Bodybuilding.

Flexibility: Enhance your range of motion, prevent injury, and reduce pain and stiffness. These may include stretching exercises and 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.

If you have not been physically active for some time a transitional plan to strengthen key muscle groups and increase movement range through stretching exercises is recommended.

Always remember to start any workout or exercise session with a ten minute warm up. When you have finished exercising, take time to cool down for about ten minutes.


There is a huge range of equipment available. These can be classified roughly as follows:

Specialist Equipment: Wheelchair exercise machines are available for home use. These include hand-cycles, body workout systems.

Gym Equipment: There are very many types of gym equipment that may be suitable for you to use. This website shows some of the available Exercise Equipment.

Make-shift Items: There are lots of household items that can be used to help with your exercise program. 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. Be sure to have them weighed and make sure that they cannot drop and cause injury. There are specialist gloves that can help if your grip is not very good.

Combine wheelchair exercises while watching TV. You could lift your weights and combine exercise with some of your favourite television shows. This is particularly useful if you aren't motivated to set up a daily routine.

If you have not been very active for some time it can be difficult to know how to get started on an exercise routine.  Finding a program that suits your capabilities, and one that will also hold your interest, can be quite a challenge.  A good idea is to start with an easily attainable goal that you know that you can achieve within a short time frame.  Tiny steps on the road to better fitness can be very rewarding and as progress is made so to confidence is built and interest improves.

Some of the benefits you'll achieve through strength training and  wheelchair exercises 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.

Sports as a means of exercise

Wheelchair exercise can be most enjoyable when combined with sport.  Don't forget that sport not only provides good exercise it is also highly sociable and good for the morale.  More details are available on our Wheelchair Sports page.  Remember that wheelchair exercises become most important when you take part in any sport be it a competitive sport or individual pursuit.

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