March 11, 2021

Wheelchair Exercises for Seniors

Written by: Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Reviewed by: Mubashar Rehman, PHD

Why Do so Many Seniors require a Wheelchair?

We must come to a realization that at some point in our lives we will begin to experience a natural degradation in the human structures related to mobility including muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons (1). After the age of 65, the physical decline commonly results in an increased sensation of body pain with reduced balance and mobility, not to mention the fear of falling where seniors may become dependent on wheeled mobility devices (2). The unfortunate reality is that the inactivity of many wheelchair users may cause an even sharper decline in body composition, which in turn can hinder the metabolic rate due to a lower ratio of active muscle and higher fat tissue. These negative adaptations can increase the susceptibility to fat-related illnesses such as clinical obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and poor cardiovascular health(3). To reduce the risk of some of these negative adaptations, there are a variety of resistance and cardiovascular exercises that can be performed from a wheelchair to preserve health and mobility (4, 5).

Wheelchair Exercises for Seniors

 

1. Shoulder Press with Optional Light Resistance

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets

Repetition

15-20 as long as the appropriate form is maintained

Rest

As much as required in between sets

Additional information

This exercise is great to stimulate and strengthen the shoulder muscle as a whole, with most of the focus on the anterior deltoid (front). Secondary muscle activation of the triceps and some trunk and back muscles will also be achieved. If you are physically not able to lift the bottles, this exercise can be completed without any resistance.

Instructions

Step 1: Grasp 2x500ml bottles

Step 2: Lift the bottles  horizontally in line with the ears, while keeping the torso upright by bracing the core (request support)

Step 3: Press the bottles above the head and extend the elbows, then  bring them back down and repeat the moments

 

2. Shoulder Flies with Optional Resistance Bands 

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets

Repetition

As many as possible (until failure); as long as the appropriate form is maintained

Rest

As much as required in between sets

Additional information

Primarily, the focus of this exercise is the lateral part of the shoulder (side); but it may activate some muscles in the forearm

Instructions

Step 1: Select a resistance band you are physically able to use and center it underneath the wheels of the mobility devise.

Step 2: Grasp the ends of the resistance bands with an overhand grip and in line with the body.

Step 3: Sit upright and bring your arms away from the body in controlled motion, bring the arms back (similar to a bird flapping its wings)

 

3. Chest Flies with Resistance Bands

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets

Repetition

As many as possible (until failure); as long as the appropriate form is maintained

Rest

As much as required in between sets

Additional information

With this exercise, the focus is the pectoral major muscle but other muscles like the biceps may be stimulated

Instructions

Step 1: Select a  resistance band you are physically able to use and center it behind the wheelchair inline with your upper back

Step 2: Grasp the ends of the resistance bands with neutral grip and arms stretch wide apart

Step 3: Bring your arms in and closer to the center of the body and repeat the motion (similar to giving a hug or clapping hands)

 

4. Seated Hip Extensions (If Possible)

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets per leg

Repetition

15-20 reps per leg as long as good form is maintained

Rest

As much as required in between sets

Additional information

This exercise will activate the quadriceps which is the form of the upper leg, it may also engage the core.

Instructions

Step 1: From the seated position lift the upper leg closer chest, then bring it down into its ‘normal’ position and repeat

 

5. Shadow-boxing  (Aerobic or Anaerobic exercise)

Duration/Sets

N/A

Repetition

N/A

Rest

You may need to rest in between the intervals.

Additional information

Both activities will burn calories from different substrates and activate the upper body muscles. These types of exercise should only be attempted if the individual is capable

Instructions

Option 1: Controlled punching movements continually (left and right, straight)

Option 2: Punching movements at a faster pace in intervals (x2-6)

 

6. Bicep Curls with Optional Resistance Bands

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets

Repetition

15-20 reps while maintaining good form

Rest

As much as required

Additional information

This is great exercise to engage the whole bicep muscle and some muscles of the forearm.

Instructions

Step 1: Select a resistance band you are physically able to use and center it underneath the wheels of the mobility devise.

Step 2: Grasp the ends of the resistance bands with an under-hand grip, sit upright against the wheelchair, and extend the elbows down.

 Step 3: Shorten the angle from the lower to upper arm and repeat the movement (curling motion)

 

7. Whole Body Stretch

Duration/Sets

1-2 sets

Repetition

30 seconds per stretch

Rest

As much as required

Additional information

Stretching is another form of stimulating muscle.

Instructions

Gently stretch the arms up and out and simultaneously stretch the legs by extending the legs if possible

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, seated exercises can be modified for wheelchair users to stimulate the whole body to minimize the  muscle wasting effect of aging and inactivity. Exercising in general can burn calories and engage the cardiovascular system to minimize fat gain and possibly improve health. Moreover, one should be aware of the risks associated to any type of exercise and stay well within their capabilities either with or without some form of resistance and remember never disregard proper form during the movements, where it could be beneficial to have a trained professional supervising.

References            

  1. Laurent, M.R., Dedeyne, L., Dupont, J., et al. Age-related bone loss and sarcopenia in men. Maturitas. 2019; 122 (1): 51- 56
  2. Karmarker, A.M., Dicianno, B.E., Cooper, R., et al. Demographic Profile of Older Adults using Wheeled Mobility Devises. Journal of Aging Research.2011, 57 (2); 5-11
  3. Marzetti, E., Calvani, R., Tosato, M., et al. Sarcopenia: an overview. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research.2017;29 (1):11-17
  4. Crawford, A., Hollingworth, H.H., Morgan, K., et al. People with mobility impairments: Physical activity and quality of participation. Disability and Health and Journal. 2008;1(1):7-13
  5. Requejo, P.S., Furumasu, J., Mulroy, S.J. Evidence-Based Strategies for Preserving Mobility for Elderly and Aging Manual Wheelchair Users. Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation.2015; 31(1): 26-41

Disclaimer: all of the information within this article is for educational purposes and is NOT intended as a personalized exercise prescription. No one can be held liable under the circumstances of damages, reparation, or monetary losses as a result of the information.

Article written by Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Zack Shakoor Kayani was born and raised in the South East of England/London. Zack has attained a bolus of knowledge regarding biosciences through academia and his career experiences. In terms of his educational background, he has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology (Hons.), a Postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition with the International Olympic Committee, and a Master’s of Science in Nutritional Sciences. Zack has been fortunate enough to apply his Exercise Science and Nutrition Knowledge to aid Hundreds if not Thousands of Patients and Athletes, providing 1-1 consultation, Personal training, Information sheets, offering recommendations to collate nutrition and exercise programs, etc. Not to mention, in 2020, he authored a book called ‘Obesity Decoded’

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