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Removing Barriers: 6 Tips on Staying Fit and Active in Your Wheelchair

Wheelchair users don’t have to resign themselves to inactivity. Find out how you can stay active, fit, and healthy as a seated athlete.

Many wheelchair users may feel held back in their ability to stay fit, but building strength and maintaining an active lifestyle is something that everyone can accomplish. It just requires a more creative fitness strategy (and educated coaches).

There are countless benefits to cultivating a healthy relationship with exercise for wheelchair users.

Staying fit can help to promote a more independent lifestyle and make daily tasks a lot more manageable. With the right plan in place, you can build up your strength levels to a point where you feel more confident and capable in your ability to navigate physical and mental health, as well as daily life.

The NHS recommends that adults between the ages of 19-64 do strength exercises on 2 or more days a week and at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly. This advice is for everyone, wheelchair user or not.

However, using a wheelchair does come with some additional hurdles. These will require some support and patience before results are visible.

If you’re in a wheelchair, this article may help you discover more about how you can integrate an active lifestyle in a way that’s realistic and attainable.

6 Tips on Staying Fit and Active in Your Wheelchair

Perform Cardiovascular Exercise

The aim of cardiovascular exercise is to increase the heart rate and break out a sweat—two things that are clear signs that the body is working hard to build strength and stamina.

And guess what? This is achievable whether you’re sitting down or standing up.

However, because most of our big muscles are located on the bottom half of the body, wheelchair users will need to put their focus on the upper body:

  • Triceps
  • Neck
  • Biceps
  • Forearms
  • Shoulders
  • Abdominals

Some forms of cardio that focus on these parts of the body can include swimming, stationary hand cycling, using rowing machines, and simply pushing your wheelchair around an open track.

There are also numerous wheelchair-friendly sports such as netball, badminton and basketball that could all prove fun and beneficial.

adaptive athlete performs wall balls during fitness competition staying fit and active in your wheelchairSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Diversify Your Diet

Even though your diet might not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to staying fit and active in your wheelchair, what you eat is central to physical health and has the potential to make or break your fitness strategy.

No exercise plan is complete without a well-rounded diet.

Because wheelchair users don’t get to use large leg muscle groups in the same way that able-bodied people can, you are likely to need less calories to maintain a healthy weight.

A diverse diet is a healthy diet. Focusing on consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and whole grains while omitting as many processed foods as possible will contribute to higher energy levels, which are ideal for increased exercise.

Another useful tip for keeping calorie consumption low is to reduce the consumption of high-calorie beverages such as milkshakes, sodas, alcohol, and fruit juices.

Maintain A Healthy Sleep Cycle

Sleep is another quintessential factor in any success-driven fitness strategy—and it’s an area of health where wheelchair users are on an equal performance pedestal with everyone else.

Not only does the body undergo several important hormonal and chemical processes overnight, but being well-rested will mean you have more energy during the day to tackle exercise routines.

Conversely, not getting enough sleep will mean that you wake up feeling sluggish and slow. This makes your daily exercise goals much harder to accomplish.

Maintaining a healthy sleep cycle includes setting an appropriate time for bed and morning waking. The average adult needs seven or more hours each night. Make sure you get those hours in before you work out and try your best to stay consistent.

Include Muscle-Strengthening Exercises

Just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t build up significant physical strength. Due to the repeated motion of pushing around a wheelchair, the chest and shoulder muscles tend to get overworked and can become tight and injury-prone.

Consequently, the back muscles tend to be under-worked, which can result in an imbalance of strength. However, muscle-strengthening exercises can change that.

Performing exercises that actively incorporate the back muscles while stretching and strengthening the upper arms will result in much easier wheelchair pushing and contribute to general upper-body fitness.

Pull-ups and resistance bands can feature very well in this area of exercise.

WheelWOD and the Adaptive Training Academy provide great resources.

Give CrossFit A Try

CrossFit is easily adapted to work for all body types and disabilities. Wheelchair users can perform many of the upper body exercises and motions unique to CrossFit. This helps to steadily increase confidence in physical abilities and promotes the development of stronger upper-body muscles.

CrossFit workouts use a number of different tools and equipment. This keeps the routine interesting and engaging for wheelchair users who may become bored with their regular exercises.

Dumbbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, pull-up bars, and resistance bands are all easily incorporated into a wheelchair user’s beginner routine. They help to develop sustainable upper-body strength and increase general physical mobility.

The adaptive nature of CrossFit makes it easy to personalise for individuals. Everybody is unique, and wheelchair users come in all different shapes, sizes and levels of mobility. Wheelchairs also come in a variety of weights, sizes and adjustable features, making some more geared towards working out than others. This is what makes performing an adaptable exercise routine so valuable.

Example CrossFit Wheelchair Workout

CrossFit Open workout 21.1 Adaptive – Seated with Hip Function

For time:

  • 1 set of alternating shoulder taps + push-up
  • 10 DB core twists
  • 3 sets of alternating shoulder taps + push-ups
  • 30 DB core twists
  • 6 sets of alternating shoulder taps + push-ups
  • 60 DB core twists
  • 9 sets of alternating shoulder taps + push-ups
  • 90 DB core twists
  • 15 sets of alternating shoulder taps + push-ups
  • 150 DB core twists
  • 21 sets of alternating shoulder taps + push-ups
  • 210 DB core twists

♀ 20-lb. dumbbell ♂ 35-lb. dumbbell

Time cap: 15 min.


Alternating Shoulder Taps + Push-Up

  • Every rep begins and ends with the athlete on the ground, arms extended with shoulders and hips in line.
  • The athlete will have their knees on the ground for the entire movement.
  • The athlete must touch each hand to any part of the opposite arm above the crease of the elbow.
  • No part of the body other than the hands, knees, and feet may be in contact with the ground.
  • After the alternating shoulder taps, every rep of the push-ups begins and ends with the athlete on the ground, arms extended with shoulders and hips in line.
  • At the bottom of the movement, the chest and thighs must touch the ground.
  • The rep is credited when the athlete returns to the starting position, with feet no wider than hip width apart, arms extended with shoulders, hips, and knees in line.
  • Each set of alternating shoulder taps + push-up counts as 1 repetition.

Dumbbell Core Twist

  • Every rep begins and ends with the athlete sitting tall on the ground, with the dumbbell on one side of the body.
  • Using two hands, the athlete will move the dumbbell from one side of the body to the other by passing the dumbbell over the thighs in a twisting motion.
  • Both hands must be on the dumbbell at all times.
  • The rep is credited when the athlete touches the dumbbell to the ground with the bottom head of the dumbbell passing behind the hip crease on the opposite side of the starting position.

Full movement standards here.

Set Goals And Stay Positive 

If you’re in a wheelchair and have minimal experience in performing regular exercise routines, it’s not always easy staying committed to them.

One way to combat this difficulty is to set yourself multiple small goals that are tricky enough to challenge you, but attainable enough that you have faith you’ll accomplish them. Goal setting is a great way to provide structure to your routine and track the progress you will make over time.

Before becoming frustrated by how far you might have to go, consider what your future strength goals are. Seek advice on what steps you must take to achieve them.

Once you’ve outlined a path, all that’s left to do is to stay positive and keep pushing until you arrive at the end. Then you can set new fitness goals and wheel yourself towards them!

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