Wheelchair Exercises for the Disabled: 3 Recommended Exercises + Safety Tips

This article is written by Maurice Muise. 

Life as a wheelchair user can be challenging no matter where you are on the planet, and daily frustrations are often exacerbated in a million little ways. If you led a physically active life and became a wheelchair user later in life, playing your favorite sport or simply going for a run or a hike might seem impossible.

However, exercise is vital to maintain your health and strengthen your core as a wheelchair user, especially as you get older. According to the International Journal of Nursing Studies, it is possible to increase your fitness levels, improve the quality of your sleep, and make some of your daily activities easier to manage with wheelchair exercises.

Read on to find out how wheelchair exercises can benefit you, which ones are best suited to you, and how to exercise safely while using a wheelchair. 

How are Wheelchair Exercises Different than Regular Exercises?

You perform wheelchair exercises from a fixed seated position whereas most non-wheelchair exercises require you to have much more mobility. You may need to perform jumping jacks, for example, or sprint from one point to another during non-wheelchair exercises.

Wheelchair exercises can be done while you sit in your wheelchair or another comfortable, sturdy chair or bench. However, the goals of wheelchair exercises are also to:

  • Increase your endurance
  • Build muscle and bone mass
  • Improve balance
  • Enhance your range of motion
  • Prevent injury
  • Reduce pain and stiffness

Simple effective wheelchair exercises will keep you active, boost your mood, and improve your mobility.

Wheelchair Exercises for the Disabled: 3 Recommended Exercises + Safety Tips | The Health Sessions
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3 Sample Wheelchair Exercises

The best wheelchair exercise routines include the following:

  • Cardiovascular exercises
  • Strength training
  • Flexibility exercises

1. Cardio Wheelchair Exercises

One of the best cardio wheelchair exercises is boxing. Follow these instructions for a 14-minute boxing session that’ll get your heartbeat up:

  1. Make sure your wheelchair brakes are engaged and that you are seated in an upright position, engaging your core muscles.
  2. Punch forward with your right arm and then your left arm, steadily increasing the speed of your alternating punches every 20 seconds, for one minute.
  3. Take a deep breath, shake out your arms and do some shoulder rolls to relax your upper body.
  4. Get back in the upright position and punch down, for one minute, steadily increasing the speed of your punches every 20 seconds.
  5. Breathe in and out deeply, shake out your arms, and gently roll your shoulders before getting back into the upright position.
  6. Now for some uppercut punches for a full minute, again speeding up at 20-second intervals. Make sure your body gets behind every punch and remember to breathe.
  7. Sip on some water and take a quick break if you need it.
  8. Punch forward again for another minute, and this time, make sure to put your body into every punch.
  9. Punch up to the ceiling, reaching as high as you can, for a minute, speeding up every 20 seconds.
  10. Repeat steps 1 to 9 once.
  11. Repeat steps 1 to 9 but only 10 seconds per series of punches at a steady pace.
  12. Roll your shoulders eight times to relax your body.
  13. Breath in and out deeply and slowly.
  14. Stretch your right arm across your chest and hug it to your body, feeling your shoulder stretch.
  15. Repeat with your left arm.

Wheelchair Exercises for the Disabled: 3 Recommended Exercises + Safety Tips | The Health Sessions
Photo by Ivan Samkov via pexels.com

2. Strength Wheelchair Exercises

A six-month Wheelchair-bound Senior Elastic Band (WSEB) study found that the elastic strength exercises had “positive benefits for the activities of daily life (ADL) and functional fitness of wheelchair-bound older adults with cognitive impairment”.

You can also perform traditional upper body exercises in your wheelchair just like in this video for a five-minute seated resistance band strength exercise routine:

  1. Make sure your wheelchair brakes are engaged and that you are seated in an upright position.
  2. Place the resistance band around your back and hold the looped ends of the band comfortably in each hand.
  3. Keep your stomach tight and push out your arms as far as they can go 12 times.
  4. Take a deep breath and repeat step three 8 times, going a little faster.
  5. Breath deeply and repeat step three 4 times, speeding up again.
  6. Now, place the resistance band under your feet and pull back on the band, squeezing your shoulder blades in and maintaining an upright posture.
  7. Complete a set of 12 pull-backs, then 8 slightly faster ones, followed by a set of four pull-backs in quick succession.
  8. Roll your shoulders eight times to relax your body.
  9. Breath in and out deeply and slowly.
  10. Stretch your right arm across your chest and hug it to your body, feeling your shoulder stretch.
  11. Repeat with your left arm.

3. Flexibility Wheelchair Exercises

A 2016 study on the effects of wheelchair Tai Chi on the physical and mental health of elderly participants with disabilities found that 12 weeks of Wheelchair Tai Chi 10 Form, as demonstrated by Dr. Yong “Tai” Wang in four important ways:

  • Positive effects on blood pressure
  • Range of motion at the shoulder and trunk
  • Physical activity
  • Mental health

If Tai Chi seems intimidating, you can adapt this seven-minute warm-up routine by lengthening the time you take for each stretch.

Wheelchair Exercises for the Disabled: 3 Recommended Exercises + Safety Tips | The Health Sessions
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Safety Tips for Wheelchair Exercises

It’s essential that you speak to your doctor or an experienced medical practitioner before you start exercising. You can work together to establish a wheelchair exercise routine that is safe while being effective. You’ll be able to work your way up to a 30-minute full-body workout session or even a 55-minute one in no time.

You should stop exercising if you experience any of the following:

  • Pain
  • Discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Clammy hands

Avoid exercising an injured body part. Rest is the best thing you can do when you are healing from an injury. Always warm up and cool down when you exercise. Drink enough fluids during your workout. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that will support and not impair you during your exercise routine.


Even a simple activity like gardening becomes inaccessible if you experience mobility issues and use a wheelchair. However, a healthy lifestyle is not the preserve of the able-bodied and despite the mental, emotional, and environmental barriers set in your way, you can engage in effective exercise routines as a wheelchair user.

Just ask Shingo Kunieda, the current world number one wheelchair tennis player, or Kgothatso Montjane, the first black South African woman wheelchair tennis player to compete at Wimbledon!

Author bio: Maurice Muise is an independent researcher with a strong interest in seniors’ health and fitness. With two parents in their 70s, Maurice has made it his mission to create the web’s best resource on how seniors can stay fit, active, and independent. You can learn more at his website SeniorsMobility.org.

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Jennifer Mulder

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