Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly

Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly: Core Exercises, Leg Exercises & More for Seniors in Wheelchairs

By Maurice

Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly

Just because an older adult uses a wheelchair, that doesn’t take away the desire to be active and engaged with life. As we age, we can’t quite do everything we used to be able to, but many elderly folks in wheelchairs still want to be as fit as they can. Fortunately for them, there are plenty of exercises they can take part in without getting out of their chair.

Please click the button below to download a free PDF of the exercises in this article:

Keep in Mind:

Before starting any new exercise(s), we strongly recommend you follow the advice of the National Institute on Aging and consult your doctor.  

What are the Benefits of Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly?

Exercise is good for everybody, and that goes for the wheelchair-bound as well. They still have activities of daily living they need to contend with, everything from fastening clothing to taking things off shelves to getting in and out of the chair. Some may want to go a step further and participate in adaptive sports. Just consider all the advantages of a fitness program for seniors, benefits that are available to wheelchair users as well:

  • Arthritis management. Keeping in motion helps to lubricate the joints.
  • Weight management and prevention of obesity.
  • Better sleep.
  • Reduced risk of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
  • Less impact from stress and depression.
  • Increased cognitive acuity and lower risk or delaying of dementia.

Finally, there’s a general quality of life factor that’s enhanced by regular exercise. Daily physical chores become less arduous and more satisfying. To put it simply, a regular fitness routine makes people feel better about themselves, no matter their age or limitations.

Best Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly

Just about any exercise that can be done in a regular chair can be done in a wheelchair. No matter what your target – your upper body, your lower body, your overall strength and balance – there are chair routines to keep you as healthy and active as possible.

Core Exercises for Wheelchair Users

Here are three that help keep those core muscles strong. They’re not hard but they have an impact.

1. Shoulder retractions

You might think of this as an exercise of the shoulders and upper back, but you can get those abdominal muscles involved as well.

  • Sit up straight and a bit forward, and tighten your abdominal muscles for back support.
  • Hold your arms out in front of you with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Your hands are facing down. It feels a bit like grabbing bicycle handlebars.
  • Thrust your arms out in front of you, as far as they’ll go without locking the elbows.
  • Now pull your elbows back to a point slightly behind you and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Hold the squeezed position for 5 seconds. Endeavor to squeeze evenly rather than favor one shoulder blade over the other. If you like, increase the intensity during those 5 (or even 10) seconds.
  • Relax the shoulder blades and return to the outstretched position.
  • Do about 10 repetitions.

2. Tummy Twist

For this exercise, you can grasp parts of the chair or fold your arms across the chest.

  • Sit up straight in your wheelchair.
  • Either cross your arms in front, or grip the left armrest and reach your right arm to the bottom of the chair
  • Draw your belly toward your spine to help you keep the lower body still.
  • Twist at the waist and rotate your upper torso to the left. Go as far as is comfortable. Bring you head along with your body so you’re looking left.
  • Hold for a second or two and return to the center.
  • Repeat on the right. Change your hand positions if necessary
  • Repeat 5-10 times on each side.

3. Seated Side Stretch

Here we're going to reach for the stars!

  • Sit straight in your chair.
  • Inhale and reach your right arm overhead with the palm facing in.
  • Bring your arm overhead and slowly lean the arm and torso as far as is comfortable to the left.
  • Hold it for a second or two.
  • Exhale, return to center and lower the arm.
  • Do 5-10 reps on each side.

Wheelchair Leg Exercises

wheelchair. If you find these leg exercises hard, just do as much as you can. It all helps.

4. Toe Taps

Sit up straight with knees at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor.

  • Tighten your abdominal muscles.
  • Tilt your toes to the ceiling, keeping your heels on the floor.
  • Repeat 15-25 times.

If that’s not hard enough for you, there are lots of variations.

  • Raise one leg, as high as you can, straight out in front if you can. Toe-tap the foot that’s still on the floor.
  • While your toes are raised, swivel them left and right, keeping your knees as motionless as possible.
  • Straighten your knee and slide your foot away from the chair, as far as you can while still keeping it flat on the floor. Then do the taps.

5. Seated Feet Lift

This gets you a little arm work and abdominal work as well.

  • Sit up straight.
  • Grab the front of the chair seat with both hands, just outside your knees.
  • Tighten your abs.
  • Keeping your knees bent, lift your feet as high as you can. If that’s only a few inches, that’s fine.
  • Hold them for a second or two then lower.
  • Repeat 10-20 times.

You can also do this one leg at a time. Just don’t lean or bend while you’re lifting.

6. Leg Circles

  • Sit up straight.
  • Keeping your left knee bent and left foot on the floor, straighten your right knee and raise your right leg as high as your easily can. Out in front is ideal but if you can only raise a few inches that’s OK.
  • Make circles with the raised leg. Go about 30 seconds in each direction.
  • If you can, make the circles bigger as you go.

You can also do this one leg at a time. Just don’t lean or bend while you’re lifting.

Strengthening Exercises for Wheelchair Bound Elderly

Not just the legs but also the upper body and the core can benefit from wheelchair strengthening exercises.

7. Knee Lifts

  • Sit up straight and tighten your abs.
  • Keeping the knee bent, raise your right leg as high as you can.
  • Lower it, then repeat with the left leg.
  • Repeat about 10 times on each side.

For extra intensity, keep the knee at its maximum height for 5-10 seconds. Continue to try to draw the knee upward while holding your supporting leg motionless. Feel the tension in the legs and hips.

8. Wheelchair Crunches

The floor crunch is perhaps the best known and most popular abdominal strengthening exercise. Here’s the chair version.

  • Sit up with your knees at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor. This can be done either with your back against the chair or sitting out from the back. In either case your back should be straight.
  • Fold your arms across your chest.
  • Hinge from your hips and bend forward. Your elbows are aiming toward your knees, but go only as far as you can.
  • Keep your back straight, all the way from the base through the neck. The bend is at the hips.
  • Do 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps.

For a slightly different muscle group, twist as you come forward and aim your elbow at the opposite knee.

Wheelchair Exercise Equipment

There are plenty of routines that require only you and your wheelchair, but you can add some common gym equipment to spice up your workout.

Resistance Band

These “stretch cords” are available at your local workout room or your favorite big box store. Some have handles you can grab. They come with lists of suggested exercises, and many are suitable for wheelchair use.

9. Chest Press

  • Wrap the band around the back of your wheelchair and grab an end in each hand.
  • Hold your arms at shoulder level with your bent elbows against your rib cage.
  • Gradually extend your arms in front of you. Go as far as you can, but don’t lock your elbows.
  • Hold for a second or two then return to start.
  • Do 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps.

For maximum efficiency of resistance exercises like this, go especially slow on the “return trip.”


Another band exercise: use the band behind the chair in the same way while doing your chair crunches.

Exercise Ball

There are exercises for big balls, small balls, weighted balls. This chest squeeze calls for something about the size and weight of a volleyball

10. Chest Ball Squeeze

  • Sit up straight and engage the abdominal muscles.
  • Hold the ball about a foot in front of your chest with one hand on each side.
  • Squeeze the ball.
  • Continue to squeeze while you extend your arms, just short of the point where your elbows lock.
  • Keep the rest of your body motionless.
  • Pull the ball back to your chest and relax the squeeze.
  • Repeat about 10 times.

Dumbbells

A pair of dumbbells is an outstanding fitness investment. They don’t have to be heavy. Even one or two pounders add a lot to any upper body exercise.

11. Seated Curls

  • Sit straight in the chair holding a dumbbell in each hand, wrist up.
  • Keep your elbows tight to your body.
  • Depending on your chair arms and how much room you have, hold the weights on your thighs, next to your legs or at your sides.
  • Curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders. Don’t let your upper arms move away from your body.
  • Lower the weights. Remember, going slowly on the “reverse trip” maximizes the effort.
  • Do 1-2 sets of 1-15 reps.

12. Seated Presses

You may not be able to press as much weight as you can curl.

  • Sit straight in your chair.
  • Hold the dumbbells just above your shoulder with your wrists facing forward. Your forearms and elbows should point straight down toward the floor.
  • Take a deep breath
  • Exhale while you extend your arms overhead.
  • Inhale as you return to start position.
  • Do 1-2 set or 1-15 reps.

Getting out of the Chair: Tricycles and Handcycles

If you’ve had enough of working out at home or in the exercise room, how about hopping on a bike and enjoying the outdoors. If you use a wheelchair, you may not have the balance to ride a two-wheeler, but three-wheel machines do the balancing for you.


Tricycles aren’t just for kids; there are adult versions as well. They look pretty much like regular bikes except for the extra wheel. If you have reasonable upper body strength but your legs are weak, consider a handcycle. Some are sleek racing models for adaptive athletes, but there are also upright versions for seniors looking for a mellow ride to the coffee shop. Just think about how much a ride outdoors will improve your outlook on life!

Exercises for Everyone Who Uses a Wheelchair

Maybe you’ve been into health and fitness all your life, and once you started using a wheelchair you went right on going. Or maybe you’ve let exercise slip a bit since you started getting around on wheels. No matter your level of fitness, you can improve your health, balance, daily well-being and attitude toward life with a wheelchair fitness program.

So grabs some cords, balls and dumbbells or just get started with you and your chair. Whatever your starting point, wheelchair exercises will make your life a little bit better!


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