How to Keep Active in a Wheelchair

Exercise is one of the most important elements to living a happy and healthy life, and never is this more important than with wheelchair users. Introducing even the smallest amount of exercise into your weekly routine will improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of injury from moving your chair and work wonders for your mental wellbeing.

No matter what your ability level is, or whether you prefer to exercise at home rather than at a gym, there is an activity out there for you, and Karma Mobility have created this guide as proof.


“Focus on what you can do instead of worrying about things you can’t do and what’s been taken away from you.” – Gordon Reid

Choose an Activity you Enjoy

Choose an Activity you Enjoy

The Department of Health states that adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, but it’s vastly more important to get a kick out of the activity you’re doing than it is to worry about hitting these targets straight away.

Try sampling a few different exercises to decide whether you prefer exercising alone or in a team, competitively or just for fun. We would recommend exercising with friends or in a community as the added social element can hugely advance your motivation levels, particularly on days when you’re not feeling up to it.

If you’re not sure where to start, Parasport is a fantastic resource for finding local sports clubs, online activities and upcoming sessions near you.

Create a Steady Routine

Create a steady exercise routine that circles around your everyday life, as well as set goals so you have something to strive for. Start slowly and build yourself up, particularly if you’ve been in a wheelchair for a long time without exercising because you could cause long-term strain or injury.

As with any exercise, success won’t come without commitment, drive and determination, but if you’re looking to simply stay fit rather than excel in a sporting area, then choosing regular cardio, strength building and pressure relieving exercises will be best.

Adapt To Perform can tailor training programmes to your fitness levels, but if you’d prefer to go at your own pace, have a look at their wide range of HIIT workouts, resistance and weight training exercises on YouTube to use as a starting point. In coach Ben Clark’s words: ‘everyone has the right to fitness’.

Advance your Aerobic Activities

Aerobic exercises are muscle strengthening movements and activities that raise your heart rate and are important in everyone’s weekly routine as they prevent heart conditions, obesity and diabetes.

Choose to put some upbeat workout music on in the background while doing these seated exercises to keep yourself motivated.

Wheelchair aerobic exercises:

  • Chair marching: while seated, imagine you are marching like a soldier and swing your arms, and legs if you are able, with power.
  • Rowing-in-a-chair: thrust your arms forward and retract them backwards while bending your elbows out to the side, imitating the movements of a rower.
  • Rolling your shoulders: extend your arms to the side and roll them clockwise in small circles and then anti clockwise.

When attempting these exercises, start with a lower number of movements and increase them as your strength and fitness levels grow.

Build Muscle Strength

Build Muscle Strength

Operating a manual wheelchair can cause strain in the upper body muscles and joints. By strengthening your arm, shoulder and core muscles, you will find easier mobility, increased independence and prevent further long-term injury.

Muscle strengthening:

  • Resistance training using resistance bands will improve joint strength
  • Dumbbells and handheld weight exercises
  • Pull ups: use a bar to pull your body off your chair. Start slowly and don’t be disheartened if you can’t lift yourself straight away
  • Gym training

Use the tool provided by the Inclusive Fitness Initiative to find inclusive gyms near you with access to wheelchair friendly equipment, or source resistance bands and handheld weights to exercise from the comfort of your own home.

Engage in Cardiovascular Exercise

Cardiovascular exercises are the best option for losing weight and keeping your heart healthy.

Cardiovascular exercises:

  • Swimming
  • Seated exercises
  • Wheelchair sprinting
  • Team or competitive sports such as tennis or rugby
  • HIIT wheelchair workouts

Find a trainer for these sports, particularly if they involve water or weights for your safety, and make sure to check with your physician that any activity you take on is suitable for your level of mobility.

Participate in a Team Sport

Participate in a Team Sport

Team and competitive sports are a superb social tool and provide an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded individuals. There’s nothing like a team mentality to boost your motivation as well as your spirit.

Wheelchair sports teams are growing in numbers and popularity, with options including basketball, netball, tennis, rugby, hockey, football and so many more. Use the tool on Parasport to find the vast pool of clubs local to you and simply take your pick.

Perform Pressure Relief Exercises

Perform Pressure Relief Exercises

Due to spending prolonged periods of time sitting down, wheelchair users can end up developing pressure ulcers. This is especially true for those who have limited feeling from the waist down as they’re unlikely to feel the discomfort of pressure injuries when they occur.

If you are able, perform one or all of the following exercises every 15-30 minutes to avoid pressure ulcers and injuries:

  • Push ups: using your armrests, push your body fully off the seat and lock your arms in place. Use a soft cushion on your armrests to make this more comfortable on your hands.
  • Forward lean: lean your body fully forward to relieve pressure from your coccyx.
  • Leaning side to side: gently lean your body from side to side to relieve pressure from your coccyx, spine and lower back. This exercise is the easiest to do in public.

If unable to perform these exercises, shift your body in your wheelchair regularly to relieve pressure from the different areas of the body.

Exercise Equipment for Wheelchair Users

Exercise Equipment for Wheelchair Users

Using suitable equipment, especially in the early stages of exercising, can drastically ease the pressure on your joints, muscles and ligaments.

Resistance bands and weights such as dumbbells are easy to access from home or the gym and are safe for wheelchair users but you can also purchase wheelchair specific equipment – including Berkel bikes, wrist and ankle weights, and rowing machines – that are designed with disabled bodies in mind.

Prepare yourself for ups and downs

As with any exercise, you might find yourself lacking motivation to begin with or not quite hitting your targets, and that’s okay. It may take a little while to settle into a steady rhythm, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself to engage in anything you’re not comfortable with.

If you see a physiotherapist for your injuries, make sure they are fully informed of your exercises so that they can adapt your physical therapy accordingly.

Find a Suitable Wheelchair

You shouldn’t have any problem engaging in most weight loss, strength building and fitness exercises in your manual wheelchair or foldable electric wheelchair, but if you’re considering engaging in a sport, you may need to look into active wheelchairs that are tailored to manoeuvring around a court or pitch. These chairs usually come with their trademark angled wheels that increase stability.

For more information, advice and guidance from the Karma community, follow Karma Mobility on social media.