Adaptive Exercise: Staying Active with Limited Mobility
Blog

Adaptive Exercise: Staying Active with Limited Mobility

by Steve Theunissen on Apr 23, 2021

We all know how important regular, full range of motion exercise is to our immediate and long term health and well-being. You can find thousands of YouTube clips and website articles that demonstrate all manner of exercises. Yet the vast majority of them are designed for able bodied people. But what can you do when you don’t have full range of motion? In this article, we consider exercise options for people with limited mobility.

Aerobic Exercise

All people need to regularly engage in aerobic exercise in order to promote cardiovascular health. Yet, one in five people in Canada live with a disability. This can range from inability to walk to difficulty with such everyday tasks as getting dressed. These people need to exercise their cardio system as well, with the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise per week being just as applicable to them as anyone else. 

Walking

Walking is one of the most effective and accessible forms of cardiovascular exercise that exists. People who have limited mobility are encouraged to include walking as part of their lifestyle, even if they use a walker. Even 15 minutes of walking in the fresh air every evening will provide cardiovascular benefits while also promoting enhanced mental health.

People who have problems with their gait and coordination can include short drills as part of their walking program and can include backward walking, side walking and knee drive walking.

Cycling

Cycling is another great cardiovascular exercise option. It does not provide the joint impact that comes with walking or running. If you have spinal difficulty, make use of a recumbent bike which positions your body lower than normal and provides more complete back support. 

Adaptive Yoga

Adaptive yoga makes this ancient form of mind/body exercise accessible to people with neuromuscular conditions. It adapted traditional poses to the abilities of the individual rather than expecting the person to adapt to the requirements of the exercise. 

Yoga is an excellent choice of exercise for people with impaired mobility and neuromuscular conditions as it has been shown to improve strength, flexibility, coordination and pelvic floor muscle stabilization. It also provides cognitive benefits in terms of increased calmness, focus and stress reduction. 

Adaptive yoga classes will place emphasis on breathing as well as physical movement. The deep diaphragmatic breathing that is used will help with the body’s energy flow and will further contribute to emotional balance and calmness. 

Adaptive Aerobics

Many gyms offer classes designed for people with disabilities. Trained instructors lead participants through a continuous series of movements designed primarily to keep the heart and lungs pumping. These may be completely chair bound or provide a variety of movement options depending on the abilities of those present. Trainers go out of their way to make these classes fun, engaging and challenging at each person’s level of fitness. 

Water Aerobics

Exercising in water is a great option for people with pain or limited mobility. When you are in the water, your body is supported and the pressure on your joints that you get on land is eliminated. The force of water provides resistance to your body that is similar to lifting weights but without the stress on your joints. In addition, the gentle action of the water on your body provides a soothing massage effect that can help to relieve pain.


Exercising in water has been shown to even improve lumbar spine conditions. In one 12 week study, published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, water exercise was shown to significantly improve the condition of people who suffered from pain caused by narrowing of the spinal column.

Cardio for the Wheelchair Bound

Most people associate cardio exercise with movement of the lower body? This raises the question how can wheelchair bound people train their cardio system? Here are a couple of suggestions:

Chair Rowing

This movement involves simulating the use of a rowing machine with an exaggerated motion. Start with your arms fully extended and then pull them back to bring your elbows out and to the side. Now arc them up in a circle motion to return to the start position. 

Picking Fruit

The name of this one says it all. Alternately reach your hands into the air to simulate picking fruit off a high tree. Breathe in deeply each time you raise your arms and stretch your fingers out wide in the top position. Perform 20 to 30 reps in rapid succession. 

Strength Training

Strength training is an ideal form of exercise for people with limited mobility. It has the potential to increase muscular strength, flexibility, joint, tendon and ligament strength and will, when combined with a smart diet, improve bone density. 

People who have mobility limitations should work under the guidance of a fully qualified personal trainer for at least a month in order to learn the proper technique and progression of their workout. It is important, too, that they learn to achieve the right resistance balance between not stimulating the muscle enough and putting too much strain on the muscle or the surrounding joints. 

Adaptive Exercise Mindset

Exercise can be a frustrating experience for a person with disabilities. At times your body will not be able to do the things you want it to do. You may be in a gym alongside able bodied people and wish that you were able to do the things that they take for granted. The best piece of advice is that which is given to every new gym member; don’t compare yourself to others.

Everyone has their own unique challenges and insecurities. When it comes to exercise, set your mind to what is possible rather than what isn’t. There is nothing good that comes from lamenting what you aren’t capable of. Instead set realistic, progressive goals. Each workout know exactly what you need to accomplish to be successful for that session. It may be to go for an extra two minutes on the bike or to do five more reps on the seated chest press machine. 

Take the time to discover what type of exercise you enjoy the most. This may require extending yourself beyond your comfort zone to try such things as weight training, yoga or aerobics. When you find the type of workout that you really like, stick with it. That will be the one that you will be most likely to stick to. Modify the activity to your requirements and then work to integrate it into your routine, with the goal of working up to 150 minutes of movement per week.