Exercising with a disability may seem impossible, especially if it is a result of a recent accident and the idea of adjusting to a new reality has not yet set in. The newly-disabled person might be focused on all of the things he or she cannot do, but the fact is that there are many types of exercises that are perfectly suited to people with disabilities. And while a full-body workout may not be possible for some types of disabilities, exercising itself has benefits that go far beyond just stretching and strengthening. Here are some great ways to exercise with a disability.

Start with your doctor

While your doctor may not be able to modify the exercises for you, she may be able to recommend a trainer or physical therapist who can get you started. Working with a trainer or therapist for several sessions can be very helpful, as they can not only give you specific exercises but also tips and tricks for modifying all different kinds of activity.

Get in the water

Water exercise is a powerful way for people with disabilities to get in a rigorous yet supported and low-impact workout. Water offers resistance and buoyancy at the same time so even gentle exercise can offer a rigorous workout. There are multiple types of water workouts.

  • Water aerobics: Just like aerobic exercise on dry land, water aerobics offer those with disabilities excellent cardiovascular benefits.
  • Water running: Running through water sounds like an easy proposition, but the resistance it offers pumps up the challenge. This is an excellent option for people with disabling arthritis or osteoarthritis that makes any physical activity intimidating.
  • Water t’ai chi: This gentle, meditative martial art can offer stress reduction and physical fitness all at once. Flotation belts can help provide stability and balance, with the water itself helping as well.
  • Swimming: Swimming is one of the best physical activities anyone can do for their body. It builds strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness. Swimming is also excellent for relieving stress, and it is an exercise that is available to everyone with proper flotation devices and assistance.

Stay at home

Many exercises can be easily modified for those whose disability either requires long periods of sitting or who are unable to use their legs. These exercises can move from very simple to complex. Give these a try:

  • Air punches: Sit up straight, with feet flat on the floor. Engage the low belly by slightly tucking the tailbone. Inhale to lengthen the spine and bring clenched fists up to the front of your body like a boxer. On an exhale (make it loud if you like), punch one fist straight forward and bring it back. Inhale and repeat, either alternating sides or doing sets of repetitions one side at a time.
  • Resistance band strength training: Use a resistance band – that long, stretchy piece of equipment that looks like a rubber band – looped underneath the chair to strength train. A simple 20-minute workout with a resistance band can make a world of difference in fitness level in a short period of time.
  • Pedal workouts: A portable pedal exerciser attaches to a chair and allows the user to exercise the lower body safely and with stability.
  • Seated stretches: Forward folds and side stretches increase flexibility and can be done safely while seated.

Hit the gym

Many gyms and community centers are now offering classes specifically geared to seniors or those with a disability. While the workouts may still be challenging, each of these types of classes will offer modifications that are appropriate for each person.

Yoga studios, for example, often offer multiple types of classes that would work well for people with disabilities. Nearly every pose in yoga can be completed either seated in a chair or with the help of one. Gentle yoga takes the same postures as a regular class and slows them down, offering modifications with props including straps, blocks, and blankets. Finally, restorative yoga uses modifications and props combined with long periods of rest in the pose itself to allow participants to get the full benefit of the pose without high muscular demand. This can be a great way to transition both mind and body into adapting to life with a disability, and it can also lead to deeper, more challenging poses over time.

Depending on the demand, gyms may also have various machines adapted for those with a disability. People in wheelchairs can be lifted into a pool, and many machines in the weight room can accommodate a wheelchair.

Stay on the couch?

It seems counterintuitive to tell people to remain seated for better health, but a new option in physical fitness may have them doing just that. Researchers are testing new games that can help make physical fitness more challenging and diverse for some with more severe disabilities, but you can also just grab the Wii remote and get started on your own. Some game systems (like the Wii) allow you to remain seated to play, but others encourage you to get up and move (like Kinect gaming systems). This allows you options tailored to your level of ability and makes exercise seem like play!

With all of these options, how can you find what’s available and which one is right for you?

The first step is always to talk with your doctor to get the okay for an increase in physical activity. Then ask for suggestions. Another great resource can be your physical therapist’s office (if you have worked with one).

Cold-calling gyms and local yoga studios can also work. If you prefer, most businesses are easily accessed through the internet, and you can send the same email out to multiple facilities at once with your specific questions.

Finally, check with your local videogame retailer. They may have suggestions depending on the level of activity you are looking for and what specific games exercise the area of the body you want.

The National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD) has excellent resources on getting started with exercise, along with routines and general guidelines. Check them out to get started today!


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