Fitness advice for wheelchair users

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

As a wheelchair user, getting active will bring you important health benefits and can help you manage daily life, too.

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 an activity or sport 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.

To improve your health, try to choose activities that improve your heart health and muscle strength.

For general health, all adults aged 19 to 64, including wheelchair users, are advised to do:

Don't worry about hitting these targets straight away: it's more important to do something active that you enjoy.

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.

Find out more in the Benefits of exercise.

Using a wheelchair can make it more difficult to do cardiovascular physical activity that raises your heart rate.

Manoeuvring or pushing a wheelchair can also put particular pressure on certain muscles in the upper body, making strains or other injuries more likely.

Muscle-strengthening exercises can help you manage your wheelchair in daily life and avoid these kinds of ailments.

What kind of activity?

The kind of activities 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.

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.

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.

Activity ideas:

  • swimming
  • sitting exercises
  • wheelchair workout 
  • 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, you should pay special attention to certain muscle groups.

The repeated pushing motion 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, such as a pull-up.

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

Some wheelchair users also find 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 (IFI), 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.

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