Wheelchair fitness

Wheelchair fitness

We all know that exercise is good for you. But it isn’t always that easy. Physiotherapist Sarah Babbs gives some top tips on keeping fit from the comfort of your chair.

The benefits of keeping active, both from a physical and psychological perspective, are well-known And it has been hammered home to us that we should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to strenuous exercise every week. But for many people with physical disabilities, getting the required amount of exercise is very difficult. How is anyone expected to do a weekly workout when they use a wheelchair or are unable to stand for any length of time?

For people who find moving painful or difficult, the thought of exercise is anything but exciting. Pain is a big deterrent, and a lack of information about appropriate exercises for people with disabilities doesn’t help. However, the evidence in favour of physical activity is compelling, so we have been in search of exercises that are fun, good for you and can be performed sitting down.


Chartered physiotherapist Sarah Babbs has been working with patients suffering various mobility issues for more than 25 years and, she says, whatever your age and your level of mobility, there will be an exercise programme that will benefit you.

When it comes to exercise, your programme should concentrate on three things: cardiovascular fitness; general strength, and core stability.

Sarah’s six steps to a fitter you

Step 1. Stretching

It is really important that you mobilise and stretch the muscles you are about to exercise.

  • Reach your right arm straight up in the air as high as you can go. Hold for a count of three, then lean to your left – you should feel a stretch down your side. Again, hold for three seconds. Repeat this with the left arm.
  • Hold your arms straight out to the side, and slowly turn until you are looking as far behind yourself as you can. Hold this for a count of three and then repeat on the other side.
  • Turn your head slowly to look left and then right. Now tuck your chin into your chest as far as it will go and then slowly raise your head to look straight ahead of you.
  • Straighten one leg out in front of you, hold for a count of three and then bring your foot back to it’s rest. Repeat on the other side.
  • Repeat this stretching sequence two or three times. On the first occasion, this might serve as your daily workout, but as you become fitter and more mobile, you will find the stretches easier.

Steps 2 & 3 – Cardiovascular fitness

Most people think of running or cycling when they talk of cardiovascular fitness, but actually this type of exercise can be anything that raises your heart rate.
‘Marching’ in your chair will soon get your heart pumping and your muscles working. Try working your arms and legs at the same time, but if this is too difficult, swing your arms for 30 seconds, then move your legs for 30 seconds. Do this until you are breathing quicker and sweating lightly.

A fun way to improve your cardiovascular fitness is to move to the music. You can follow an aerobics video or devise your own programme. The important thing is to get your arms and legs moving – punching the air, running on the spot (seat), flexing and extending your arms, raising and lowering your legs – any action that gets the blood pumping faster and the heart beating quicker will improve your fitness and make you feel good. And this is a great activity to do with friends.

To make these cardiovascular work outs harder, hold some light hand weights as you move.

Step 4 & 5 – Strength

There are numerous exercises that you can do to increase your strength, but here are two exercises that focus on the areas that many fitness professionals neglect – the wrists and ankles.

The wrists

Rest your hands so they hang just past your knees. Close your hands into a tight ball and then flex (move your knuckles up) and extend (move your knuckles down) your wrists as far as they will move in either direction. Repeat 15-20 times.
Grip a tennis ball in each hand to add tension to the movement and make it more challenging.


Keeping your legs at a 90 degree angle, press your heels into the footrest of your wheelchair or the floor, then raise your toes as high as they will go, hold for a few seconds and then lower. Now place your toes on the footrest or floor and raise your heels as high as you can; again, hold for a few seconds. Repeat this movement 10-15 times.
You can intensify this exercise by wearing light weights on your ankles.

Step 6 – Using your chair

Your chair can become an exercise station in its own right. Grip the arms of the chair with your hands and raise your body as high as you can from the seat. This will give your triceps and biceps a work out. Over time you will be able to lift your own body weight higher, and hold it off the seat for longer.
Repeated standing up and sitting down in your chair will engage the muscle groups in your legs. The quadriceps and hamstrings are the major players in this movement, but you will also be working the gluteus muscle group and, importantly, developing your core. As you stand and sit, you will feel your back and stomach muscles working with you.

Again, you can make this a more intense exercise by holding a weight or an exercise ball as you do the movement.

The benefits of exercise

  • Improves heart and lung function (cardiovascular fitness), enhances blood circulation, tones muscles, strengthens bones and reduces the cholesterol level in blood
  • Increases agility and range of movement
  • Burns excess fat in the body and helps keep body weight under control
  • Relieves stress, builds self-confidence and provides ‘feel-good factor’