Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is critical when you are a wheelchair user. Even though the use and control of your lower extremities is lowered or incapable as a wheelchair user, it is essential to continue to “use” those muscles to prevent atrophy (a weakening or degeneration caused my disease or disuse). Exercising the upper body is just as important to maintain the stamina necessary to operate a wheelchair especially if you regularly use wheelchair ramps for your house or if you have a wheelchair van with a ramp.
Resistance exercises to improve your upper body strength reduce your chances of injury. Specialized exercise videos for wheelchair users allow you to work out in the privacy of your own home. Specialized exercise equipment is also available for wheelchair users such as arm ergometers, stationary “bikes” designed after hand cycling is a wonderful way to increase stamina through aerobic exercise as well as maintain your weight.
However, exercise equipment and videos are optional, there are simple exercises you can do from home without spending any money at all.
- Lift your arms straight out in front of you, hold for a few seconds, and lower. Repeat 15-20 times as your stamina allows. As your strength increases, add hand weights. A low cost option to weights can be 2 liter soda bottles, books, or any other household item you can easily hold in one hand weighing 5 to 10 pounds.
- Lift your arms out to the sides (stopping at shoulder level), hold, then lower. Repeat 15-20 times as your stamina allows. This exercise can be done with weights as well as your strength increases.
- Using hand weights or any household alternative, do 15-20 repetitions of shrugging your shoulders.
- Using weights or alternative, lift both arms straight above your head fully extending your arms.
- Holding the weights in your hand, palm up, bend at the elbow towards your shoulder.
- Raise one arm bent at the elbow, behind your head. Using weights do 15-20 repetitions of fully extending your arm.
Stretching all your major muscles in your upper body, including your shoulders, arms, back, and neck improves your flexibility and reduces the risk of injury. It’s a great way to start and end a work out with stretching to reduce the build up of lactic acid in your muscles.
Lactic acid forms when your muscles aren’t able to get enough oxygen. When suddenly stopping exercise without a “cool down”, the lactic acid pools in your muscles and leads to muscle cramps and pain.
Some tips to remember when stretching:
- Never use force while stretching; use just enough to allow the muscle to stretch
- Hold the position still, instead of bouncing, especially if you have spasms. This allows your muscle to relax and stretch.
- A good time to do your stretching is before and after exercise or during your daily skin inspection in the morning.
These are stretching exercises you can do while leaning against the headboard of a bed, leaning against a piece of furniture that will not move, or sitting in your wheelchair.
- Hook your left wrist under your left knee. Pull your left knee toward the chest. Hold to a count of 10. Repeat 5 times.
- Sit with your left knee bent toward your chest. Use your left wrist and forearm to push the outside of your left knee toward your right leg. Do not force. Hold for a count of 10. Repeat 5 times.
- Sit with your left knee bent up. Slowly lower it out to the side toward the bed or wheelchair. Use your left wrist and forearm to push gently down against the inside of the left knee. Hold for a count of 10 and repeat 5 times.
- Facing a bed or chair, place one of your legs straight out on the bed or chair and hold the knee straight. Do not lean forward as this will stretch you too much. Hold for 3-5 minutes per leg.
- Sit with your legs stretched out in front. Lean forward. Use your elbows or hands to keep your knees straight if you need to. Loop a strap around the bottom of your foot. Pull the strap toward you to stretch your foot without turning to either side. Hold for a count of 5 and repeat 10 times.
Another option for exercising is to look into wheelchair sports that might be available in your area.