Physical Activity for People with Disabilities

The active living movement has encouraged all of us to be more physically active in our daily lives and to maintain or improve our health. People with disabilities or mobility issues can achieve important health benefits by being as physically active as possible.

Every Person is Unique

Although every individual is different, it’s true that some people with disabilities or mobility issues are not as active as others. If you have a disability or limited mobility – and are leading a sedentary lifestyle – you may be at greater risk of being obese, or experiencing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or coronary heart disease.

For anyone with a disability or mobility issue, it’s vital to be as physically active as possible. Equally, it’s important to find ways to overcome any barriers you may face as you try to become physically active. These barriers may include affordability and/or a lack of access, transportation and information.

The Benefits of Physical Activity are Real

Whether you have a short-term or long-term disability, or are experiencing mobility issues for any reason, physical activity can:

  • Give you an enhanced sense of control.
  • Allow you to focus on your physical abilities, not your disability or mobility issue.
  • Give you more energy and strength to do things on your own, whether at home or at work, or for tasks such as grocery shopping or housework.

Participants in activity groups for people with disabilities report that these programs:

  • Help them to feel they’re not alone when working towards fitness or health goals.
  • Provide a social outlet where people can discuss common experiences, talk about solutions to various challenges and just have fun together.

Exercising in a social setting also increases your motivation to participate in physical activities. As you participate more, you’ll be inspired keep at it!

Physical activity can also improve mental health, by improving your sense of physical fitness and by providing opportunities for social interaction. Did you know that depression rates are higher among people with disabilities? For example, 80 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis experience depression at some point. Physical activity can be a practical tool to help you fight depression, improve your mood and reduce anxiety and stress.

Here are some other benefits of physical activity:

  • Improves cardiovascular fitness and endurance
  • Helps develop and maintain joint flexibility, muscular strength, and balance
  • Reduces the risk of diabetes and some cancers
  • Helps control weight
  • Improves bone density

For example, physical activity can help people with arthritis to decrease their pain and weakness from arthritis and improve their overall health. For older adults, physical activity programs can help individuals to continue living at home, independently.

Adapting Activities for People with Disabilities

If an activity doesn’t work for all abilities, it can usually be adapted so everyone can participate.

Sports that you can play in a wheelchair include rugby, tennis, golf, basketball and track. People with disabilities can also dance (in wheelchairs), ride horses, go canoeing or kayaking, swim, row and take aquasize, yoga or tai chi classes.

Winter activities might include sledge hockey, and adapted versions of cross-country and downhill skiing. There are many other possibilities for creative adaptations of this kind.

People with disabilities benefit from physical activity, and the barriers to being active are starting to come down. A wide variety of activities have been adapted so people of all abilities can participate. So go out and get active!

Activities for People with Mobility Issues

Many people experience temporary or permanent mobility issues. People with mobility issues may include:

  • Individuals who use a wheelchair or other assistive devices to help them be mobile
  • Persons with a chronic health condition, such as osteoporosis, arthritis or obesity
  • Those who may be experiencing a temporary difficulty with mobility, e.g., due to a lower limb or bodily injury of some kind
  • Older adults who have less mobility due to age, frailty or other factors

For those of us with mobility difficulties, being active may sometimes require more planning and organization. But it’s worth it. Physical activity is vital to a good quality of life and offers both short- and long-term health benefits.

Cardiovascular Activities

Cardiovascular activity is good for your health! It can increase your overall energy level and improve the function of your heart, lungs, circulation and muscles.  Here are some ways to improve your cardiovascular fitness level:

  • Try going to a fitness centre and using a stationary bike, rowing machine or arm ergometer (a machine that measures the work you do during exercise) for your cardiovascular activity.
  • Swimming pools are another great place to be active at your own speed. Swimming or participating in aquafit classes may help you to develop your cardiovascular fitness.
  • People with mobility issues may prefer swimming pools with a sloped entrance into the water. The slope allows you to wheel or walk into the pool with or without help.
  • If you like being active at home and you can find a safe surface for walking or wheeling, follow an aerobic fitness video, or dance and move around the house to your favourite tunes.

Choose an activity that works best for you! Any of these activities are a great way to increase your heart rate and improve your cardiovascular system while having fun.

Take Your Time

Take care and consult a physician before you begin a physical activity. For some people, cardiovascular or endurance physical activity can be difficult. Participating in these activities for at least 10 minutes at a time is important, so you realize the health benefits.

But, at first, you may not be able to be active for 10 minutes at a time. If this is the case, do what you can comfortably, and then slowly progress to 10 minutes of exercise in a row. Once you can do 10 minutes, you can progress to one 15 minute session per day, or two 10 minute sessions, at different times of the day.

Strength Activities

Strength activities challenge your muscles by pulling, pushing or holding muscle contractions. Strength training is a great way to keep muscles and bones strong, and improve balance and posture.

If you have osteoporosis, do isometric strength training exercises. In this type of exercise, you contract the muscle but don’t move the joint. This type of exercise helps develop strength when joint movement is too painful. To make sure the exercise is safe for you, make an appointment with a personal trainer or your physical therapist for specific strength-training exercises.  

Here are some ideas for ways to improve your strength.

At a fitness center or at home:

  • Do free weight exercises, standing up or sitting down
  • Use resistance training machines that you can sit on
  • Do band/tubing exercises with a fitness leader or personal trainer

If you don’t know how to use the machines or free weights, make an appointment with a personal trainer to ensure that you are doing the exercises safely.

In a swimming pool:

  • Do movements using the water as resistance. You can ask an instructor to help you with this creative way of strength training.
  • You might also want to develop a personalized program with a personal trainer.

At home:

  • Follow exercise videos or programs that lead you through a full-body strength program using a dynaband, soup cans or hand weights.
  • Ask a personal trainer to develop a fitness program that you can do at home with exercise tools that you already own. Using your muscles while doing daily activities will also help improve your overall strength.

Flexibility Activities

Flexibility activities include activities that help you move your joints and muscles more easily.

Improving your flexibility can help you with your daily activities such as bending down to tie your shoelaces, brushing your hair, getting up and down off the floor, moving in and out of the bathtub, and reaching for items in a cupboard.

Do stretching exercises slowly and smoothly, with no bouncing or jerking. Stretching should not be painful.

Tai Chi and chair yoga are activities that improve your flexibility. You can often do both of these activities standing up or sitting down.

Fitness centers often offer classes on stretching, or other classes that include stretching as one part of the class.

Personal trainers can help you to develop a personalized stretching program to do with some help or on your own.

An Active Future

Most physical activities can be adapted to fit all abilities and disabilities. Those of us with mobility issues can choose to be as active as possible.

It can really improve your health and quality of life if you make physical activity a big part of your routine. This can include different activities that are right for you, including cardiovascular, strengthening and flexibility activities.

To make sure that you are doing exercises or activities correctly, talk with your physician, an exercise instructor, personal trainer or your physical therapist.

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About Barb

After spending many years in corporate human resources and organization development, I put my passion for health and wellness at the center of my professional life and went back to school for a second degree in Kinesiology. In 2008, I became a personal trainer and never looked back!
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