Fitness advice for wheelchair users

If you’re a wheelchair user, it can be easy to overlook physical fitness and exercise. But getting active will bring you important health benefits and can help you manage daily life, too.

Wheelchair users can face particular challenges when it comes to fitness and exercise.

But regular aerobic exercise – the kind that raises your heart rate and causes you to break a sweat – and muscle-strengthening exercise are just as important for the health and wellbeing of wheelchair users as they are for other adults.

Whatever your preferences and level of physical ability, there will be options that are right for you.

Physical activity doesn’t have to mean the gym, or competitive sport, though these can be great options. Activity can take many forms, and happen in many places.

Why you should get active

Regular physical activity is good for physical and mental wellbeing, and can be a great way to meet new people.

Philip Gill is a specialist tutor at YMCAfit, an organisation that trains fitness professionals. He specialises in training fitness professionals who work with wheelchair users and people with other disabilities.

He says that getting active is important for wheelchair users for a range of reasons: “Using a wheelchair can make it more difficult to do cardiovascular physical activity that raises your heart rate and makes you warm enough to break a sweat. This kind of exercise is important for the health of your heart and lungs. Missing out on this kind of exercise can contribute to weight gain over time.

“Manoeuvring or pushing a wheelchair can also put particular strain on certain muscles in the upper body, making strains or other injuries more likely. Muscle-strengthening exercises can help you to manage your wheelchair in daily life, and avoid these kinds of injuries.” 

How much activity?

The Department of Health says adults between the ages of 19 and 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-level aerobic activity a week, and muscle-strengthening activity on two or more days a week.

If you’re a wheelchair user, getting active regularly will bring you important health benefits.

Gill says these general guidelines can help wheelchair users, too: “In the absence of specific guidelines, wheelchair users can compare their activity levels to the general guidelines for adults,” he says.

“Many wheelchair users will not be doing anywhere near that volume of physical activity. If that’s you, then see these guidelines as a goal, which you should take small steps towards.

“Remember: even small increases in physical activity will bring health benefits.”

What kind of activity?

Gill says the kinds of physical activity that are right for you depend on your level of physical ability, and the types of activity that appeal to you.

“Your aim might be to improve certain aspects of physical function, to help with daily life. Or you may be seeking improved fitness, or involvement in competitive sport," he says.

“Whatever your level of physical ability and confidence, there are activities you can do to improve fitness.”

Cardiovascular exercise

There's a range of options available for taking cardiovascular exercise in a wheelchair.

“The aim is to raise your heart rate, and be warm enough to break a sweat,” says Gill. “You should be slightly out of breath: enough that you can still hold a conversation, but not sing the words of a song.

“If you’re unused to exercise or you haven’t exercised for some time, aim to start with 10-minute sessions, and gradually build up towards 20 minutes.”

Gill suggests these ideas:

  • swimming
  • wheelchair sprinting, in a studio or at a track
  • using a rowing machine adapted for wheelchair use
  • wheelchair sports, such as basketball, netball and badminton

Muscle-strengthening exercise

When it comes to muscle-strengthening exercise, Gill says you should pay special attention to certain muscle groups.

“The repeated pushing motion that is used to push a wheelchair means that the chest and shoulder muscles can become tight and prone to injury. Meanwhile the back muscles, which are not involved in this pushing motion, can become weaker, because they are never worked.

“Because of this, it’s a good idea to focus on exercises that work the smaller muscles that support the pushing motion, such as the shoulder muscles: this can help prevent injury. You can also strengthen the back muscles by doing exercises that involve a pulling motion.”

Gyms with equipment adapted for wheelchair users are a great place to do muscle-strengthening activities.

Some wheelchair users also find that they can do muscle-strengthening exercises at home, using resistance bands.

Get started

There are various ways to learn more about activities that are right for you, and find local facilities.

  • Parasport is an organisation dedicated to helping disabled people get involved in sports. Use the Parasport self-assessment wizard to find the right sports for you.
  • The English Federation of Disability Sport runs the Inclusive Fitness Initiative, a scheme that ensures gyms are suitable for use by people with disabilities. Find a local IFI gym at the English Federation of Disability Sport website.
  • Your local recreation centre must ensure it provides access to wheelchair users, according to the Disability Discrimination Act. If you have questions about your local recreation centre, such as what specialist equipment they have, or whether there are special sessions for wheelchair users, call ahead and ask.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2014

Next review due: 30/04/2016

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