Regardless of age, physical condition or current fitness level, moderate exercise and increased flexibility introduces a lot of benefits to your daily life. For people in wheelchairs, physical exercise is essential for increasing blood circulation, spine stability, posture and flexibility.
Most wheelchair users rely on their upper body for movement, particularly the triceps and shoulders, which can put extra strain on the joints and muscles. In order to prevent injury, it’s important to avoid imbalances by strengthening the muscles of the back and stretching chest muscles.
Beyond the physical reasons, exercise generates endorphins, body awareness and muscle strength while relieving stress and enhancing self-esteem. Exercise also helps you get deeper, more restful sleep, which is essential for preserving emotional and physical health. A sedentary life can increase your chances of gaining weight and adding strain to your joints and musculoskeletal system, leading to arthritis or osteoarthritis for older wheelchair users.
Note, we’re not physical therapists or medical professionals. The following exercises are suggested by professionals and contain their own guidelines for physician consultation.
Shoulder Opening Exercise
This activity provides a great stretch to the shoulders and chest muscles. It helps maintain mobility in the shoulders and upper extremities leading to decreased injuries and pain.
Equipment needed: broomstick or cane
Muscles worked: rotator cuff muscles, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, deltoids
Frequency: once daily
- Remove armrests from your wheelchair if possible
- Sit comfortably and hold the stick behind your back, with your hands in a wide grip, about 6-inches wider than your shoulders
- Raise your stick up above your head, keeping your arms straight
- Adjust your grip if necessary and continue behind your head until you feel a stretch
- Hold for 5 seconds, return to starting position, complete 10 reps
Exercise crafted by registered occupational therapist Natasha.
Clasped Hands Extension
This stretch will help you work on extending your shoulders, combating rounded posture and fatigue.
Frequency: once daily
- Remove the armrests of your wheelchair if possible
- Sit upright and pull your belly button in towards your spine, keeping your core tight
- Clasp your hands behind your back and straighten your elbows
- Pull your arms up and back, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together
- Move in and out of the stretch 5 times, holding for 15-30 seconds
Every wheelchair user is different. So, speak to your doctor or physical therapist regarding suitable exercises for you and get approval to perform stretching exercises. While you’re talking with them, also ask the following questions:
- What exercises should you avoid?
- How much exercise do you need in a day or week?
- What type of exercises should you do?
- What type of medications interfere with your exercise routine?
For more shoulder and back stretches, check out the patient education chart from Oklahoma State University Medical Center’s infographic here.
Regardless of your physical shape, several techniques can help you overcome mobility issues and improve your quality of life. Be sure to consult a physician to determine what exercises are appropriate for you and — as with any new exercise routine — start small and build up to more dynamic and strenuous workouts.