Staying active and enjoying regular exercise is important both for your physical and mental well-being.
And while everyone can benefit from exercise, as a wheelchair user, there are a number of benefits that extend beyond basic physical fitness: maneuvering a wheelchair can contribute to strains or injuries in your upper body. Conditioning and muscle-strengthening can help you avoid these injuries and increase your quality of life dramatically.
Your mental health can also benefit enormously: exercising releases endorphins which can help to relieve stress, improve your mood and induce a sense of well-being.
In this blog, we cover different types of exercises and their benefits, and how to get started.
Cardiovascular wheelchair exercise
Cardiovascular exercise is activity that increases your heart rate.
It should form an important part of your fitness routine and has a number of benefits including helping to regulate your weight, lowering blood pressure and improving the health of your heart - and the quality of your sleep.
There are a number of options to consider for cardiovascular exercise as a wheelchair user. Some involve machines - such as an arm ergometer, whilst others may rely on external support such as swimming.
Others involve nothing more than arm movements. For example, raising your arms rhythmically. There are a number of creative names for these exercises including 'picking fruit' and 'aeroplane arms'!
If you're exercising from home, you may find it useful to follow an instructional video.
Swimming and other water-based exercises are also extremely beneficial as your buoyancy can reduce pressure on your body during exercise, minimizing muscle and joint discomfort.
While most swimming pools and gyms have specialist equipment, it's always worth calling ahead or visiting their website to make sure they have someone trained in using the equipment who can help you on the day.
It's also worth looking out for adaptive swimming classes in your local area. For example, Columbus' Parks and Recreation website keeps a list of upcoming classes.
Muscle-strengthening wheelchair exercise
Muscle-straightening exercises are equally-as-important as cardiovascular exercises. They can increase bone density, muscle mass and your metabolic health.
As a wheelchair users, there are also specific benefits that come from strengthening certain muscles. For example, pushing a manual wheelchair can lead to your chest and shoulder muscles becoming tighter, while your back muscles which do not contribute to the pushing motion, may become weaker from lack of use.
Exercises which strengthen your back muscles through pulling motions can help strengthen the smaller muscles in your back, and reduce reliance on your shoulders and chest.
Luckily, many exercises and machines are accessible to wheelchair users without modification.
For example, you may be able to use free-weights and a number of machines to perform exercises.
There are certain exercises which might require adaptations to existing equipment or modification of your wheelchair, for example, removing armrests to allow a greater range of movement.
Resistance bands - which are cheap, available in varying levels of resistance, and freely available online - are particularly useful as they allow exercise to take place anywhere and remove reliance on machinery or free weights.
Flexibility wheelchair exercise
Whereas cardiovascular exercises improve the health of your heart, and resistance-based exercises improve the strength of your muscles, flexibility-based exercises can help to increase your range of motion and reduce stiffness and pain.
Common forms of flexibility-based exercises include pilates and yoga: although they can be as simple as stretching!
As with muscle-strengthening exercises, wheelchair users may find extra benefit from stretching and increasing their flexibility: your back, shoulders and chest may be tight from the movement of pushing the wheelchair.
Flexibility-based exercises can frequently take place anywhere, meaning you don't need to be in the gym to get started.
There are lots of great guides online which can help you get started:
How to get started
Before you make any adjustment to your exercise routine, it's important to consult your primary care physician.
Any strenuous activity can exacerbate existing or underlying conditions such as asthma so it's worthwhile getting your doctor's opinion and reviewing your medical history.
Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who will be able to set you up with an exercise routine best suited to your individual needs.
Once you have consulted a professional, it's down to you where to get started. Some people enjoy the flexibility of working out from home while others enjoy the social-side and extra motivation that comes from working out in a gym.
If you do visit a gym, it's also important to speak to the general manager and explain to them your requirements. Gyms are required to make their spaces wheelchair-accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act - but many go further and are happy to arrange personalized training sessions or consultations with their trainers.
If you find yourself enjoying exercise more and more, it's worth searching for wheelchair-based sports teams in your area for everything from baseball to tennis.
Adaptive Sports Ohio is a fantastic organization which runs both community-and-school based leagues and competitions for wheelchair users and teams.