Senior Fitness: Safe & Effective Exercises for Wheelchair Users

Keep your seniors in wheelchairs mobile, fit and healthy by following the exercises and tips for wheelchair-based seniors in this handy guide.

As older adults, regular exercise is an essential part of daily life. It improves heart health, strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility for a better quality of life.

This need for exercise applies even to seniors who may be wheelchair-bound. They can do plenty of exercises to stay fit and self-sufficient without lifting heavy weights or running miles on end.

If you’re a senior or a caregiver, this handy guide will provide you with the different types of exercises for seniors in wheelchairs and other essential details.

Types of Exercises for Seniors in Wheelchairs

Being in a wheelchair because of old age or diseases shouldn’t prevent you from moving. In this section, we look at seniors’ cardio and strength exercises that can be done from a wheelchair.

A. Cardio Exercises

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises increase heart rate, oxygen, and blood flow, which benefits a person’s heart, mental state, sleep, mood, and metabolism.

Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair racing stems from post-World War II England as a rehabilitation tool for injured veterans. Later on, it reached other countries and became popular.

The key to successful wheelchair racing is using gloves to protect the hands from injuries and lesions. Moreover, with wheelchair racing, you get to have these perks:

  • Pushing the wheels can improve the strength of your arm muscles
  • Longer time spent wheel pushing can enhance cardiovascular endurance
  • Sprints when racing can elevate heart rate and stimulate blood flow

Wheelchair Aerobics

Wheelchair aerobics include movements that increase heart and oxygen rates. Drawing from our experience, the following aerobic exercises can be done while in a wheelchair:

Side Twists

This exercise focuses on the abdominal muscles (core strength) and neck strength (including the thorax), which can alleviate back pains.

The heart rate when performing side twists can be elevated with high repetitions, improving lung capacity, lowering cholesterol, and stabilizing emotions.

To do this, the following steps must be followed:

  1. Sit upright on the wheelchair
  2. Twist the body in a left-center-right sequence
  3. Repeat at least 15 times

Toe Taps

The leg part (lower body) must also be exercised to keep the muscles and nerves moving freely. The best solution for that is tapping the toes.

Toe taps are efficient in burning calories, toning leg muscles, and improving overall posture. To execute toe taps, follow these steps:

  1. Sit upright in the wheelchair in a comfortable position
  2. Lay the feet flat on the ground
  3. Lift the toes on one foot (one leg) as high as possible and return it to the floor
  4. Do it on the other foot on the other leg
  5. Repeat at least 15 times

Wheelchair Dancing

Wheelchair Dancing

Another cardio exercise that should be on the list is wheelchair dancing. Dancing, when intense, is considered a cardio activity that elevates heart rate and warms the muscles up. Dancing can also help seniors:

  • Burn calories
  • Build muscle strength
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Improve mood and cognitive function

Moreover, older adults in a wheelchair can dance individually or in pairs through some of the following dance styles:

  • Jive
  • Paso Doble
  • Waltz

PRO TIP: Know the best wheelchairs for the elderly to use for dancing through this article!

B. Strength Exercises

Strength Exercises

Strength training or exercises are designed to improve muscular strength and endurance, keeping muscles flexible and preventing the risk of fractures. It’s vital for keeping seniors injury-free.

NOTE: Performing strength exercises entails knowing how wide a wheelchair is to maximize movements and knowing the best flooring for wheelchairs to make the feet and wheels flat and comfortable.

Wheelchair Push-Ups

With limited mobility, you can gain strength through wheelchair exercises for seniors, such as wheelchair push-ups.

This exercise boosts the strength of the upper arm and shoulder blades. Aside from that, it can also do good for the abdominal and back muscles, which help ensure good posture.

To perform the push-up wheelchair exercise for seniors, here are the following steps:

  1. Lock the wheelchair and unhook the safety belt.
  2. Sit in a stable position.
  3. Place your arms on the side.
  4. Take a deep breath (inhale)
  5. Push your body up with forearms extended upright as you exhale.
  6. Hold the body in that position for about two seconds and slowly lower it.
  7. Repeat this exercise 10 times for a total of three sets (or depending on your capacity)

Upper Body Strength Training

Aside from push-ups, wheelchair exercises for seniors include the reverse butterfly, biceps curls, shoulder press, and chest press, which are responsible for building strength in your arms and core, burning calories, and improving coordination.

Reverse Butterfly

A reverse butterfly is a resistance wheelchair exercise requiring resistance bands. Here is a guide on how to execute chair exercises like this:

  1. Wrap the resistance bands around a solid platform.
  2. Sit upright, chest up; don’t lean back.
  3. Hold the bands with both hands, forearms extended, and elbows straight.
  4. Pull the resistance bands, extending your arms sideways (a gentle stretch will do)
  5. Hold the arms in that position for about three seconds, and slowly bring them back to the initial position (still outstretched)
  6. Repeat this exercise 12 times for three sets (or depending on your capacity)

Bicep Curls

Bicep curls are a weight and strength training exercise that can be achieved using small dumbbells, a medicine ball, or resistance and exercise bands. Here are the simple steps you can follow to do it:

  1. If you are using exercise bands, loop them under the wheelchair’s footrest (if doable) or under your thighs near your knees.
  2. Sit properly and upright; don’t slouch.
  3. Hold the bands with your arms stretched at a 90-degree angle and palms forward. If you use dumbbells or a medicine ball, hold them in both hands.
  4. Do a biceps curl by pulling the bands, dumbbells, or a medicine ball toward your shoulder and slowly push it back to its original position.
  5. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

REMEMBER: You can go for heavier weights (add weight) depending on your capacity and the doctor’s recommendation.

Shoulder Press

To further strengthen shoulders, arms, and back muscles, especially to push your wheelchair more effectively, a shoulder press should always be a part of strength training. In doing this, here is what you need to follow:

  1. Wrap the resistance band underneath the footrest
  2. Hold the bands with your arms
  3. Slowly bend your arms straight near the shoulders, with palms facing forward
  4. Push hands upward over the head, arms straight
  5. Return to the original position
  6. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Chest Press

Upper body strength training is only complete with the classic chest press, which works well to develop chest muscles and arms. To do this, make sure to follow this step-by-step process:

  1. Wrap the resistance band at the back of your wheelchair
  2. Hold the bands with your arms
  3. Slowly press your arms straight in front, fully extended, at chest level
  4. Return to the original position
  5. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Lower Body Strength Training

Lower body strength exercises are equally important to keep seniors in tip-top body shape. This means doing leg presses, calf raises, leg extensions, and leg curls when you still have the use of your legs.

Leg Press

Leg presses improve glutes, calf, and leg strength, and to perform it, here are the specific steps to follow:

  1. Lay your feet flat on the floor, if possible
  2. Sit in an upright position
  3. Wrap the resistance band underneath the foot flat
  4. Hold the bands with your arms near the waist
  5. Lift the right knee from one leg towards the chest in a bent position
  6. Gently push the right foot away from you
  7. Return the knee to the bent, original position
  8. Do it on your left knee (other leg)
  9. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Calf Raise

Keeping the calf muscles active means maintaining good blood flow from your lower body to the upper body. To strengthen the calf muscles, a calf raise can be one of the best wheelchair exercises.

Here’s how to do calf raises:

  1. Lay your feet flat on the floor, if possible
  2. Sit in an upright position
  3. Wrap the resistance band underneath the foot
  4. Hold the bands with your arms near the knee
  5. The ball of your right foot must be in the middle of the resistance bend
  6. Straighten your right leg and pull the band toward the hips
  7. Gently point the toes on the right foot forward and return to the starting position
  8. Do it on your left leg
  9. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Leg Extension

A leg extension does not only help improve the muscles, but it also helps in keeping the spine flexible. To incorporate this in wheelchair exercises, here’s what you need to know:

  1. Sit in an upright position
  2. Wrap the resistance band underneath the left foot and around the right ankle
  3. With the feet flat on the floor, spread them a ruler’s length apart
  4. Slowly push the right foot out in a slightly bent position with the right thigh on the chair
  5. Return to the original position
  6. Do it with your left leg
  7. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Leg Curl

To further the flexibility and strength of your legs, even with old age, you can incorporate the leg curl among your daily chair exercises.

  1. Wrap the resistance band around a solid platform, and loop it at the back of one of your ankles.
  2. Sit upright with one of the feet flat on the floor and the looped one extended forward.
  3. Slowly bend back the looped leg.
  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this exercise 10 times for two sets (or depending on your capacity)

Benefits of Exercising for Seniors in Wheelchairs

To keep you acquainted with what elders can get from the different exercises for seniors in wheelchairs, we have here the essential benefits.

Improved Cardiovascular Health

Exercise can improve cardiovascular health, including that of seniors doing wheelchair exercises. 

As per our expertise, the different seated exercises can improve the following body dynamics, which in turn helps the overall health of the cardiovascular system:

  • Improves the delivery of oxygen, which means increased energy, wound healing, and reduced inflammation preventing risks of atherosclerosis
  • Increases volume and functionality of the body to utilize fatty acids for the protection of organs and increases energy
  • Increases metabolism for appropriate weight management and quality sleep
  • Improves heart health to prevent heart disease 

Improved Muscle Strength

Building the strength of muscles in the upper torso and legs is one of the perks that wheelchair users can get from the wheelchair exercises listed above.

Aside from that, when proper posture (i.e., sitting upright, not slouching, and feet flat on the ground when necessary, core tight) is used, back muscles and core strength can also be developed, building strength and resilience.

Increased Flexibility

Cardio and strength exercises can also increase the flexibility of older adults, which is helpful given that they are more prone to fractures due to old age. 

It can also help prevent rheumatoid arthritis, allowing them to move freely like their younger selves once did playing sports.

The simple movements included in the exercises mentioned above, such as knee lifts, arm raises with a medicine ball, aeroplane arms, shoulder retractions, and side twists, are a great help in improving their ease of motion.

Improved Balance and Coordination

Of course, having improved cardiovascular health, muscle strength, and flexibility, wheelchair users can also improve their balance and coordination after doing regular wheelchair exercises.

With this improvement, seniors can have better control over their hands and feet with little to no help from others when reaching for something or standing up for a split second.If balance and coordination are improved, there is a higher possibility of preventing falling or bumping into surfaces that can adversely affect the body.

Safety Tips for Exercising in a Wheelchair

Before getting the perks from exercises for seniors in wheelchairs, the primary thing that should always be remembered is taking safety precautions.

Warm-Up Before Exercising

Before you undergo exercises or initiate exercise for your seniors at home, make sure that warm-ups always come first.

A warm-up is done before an actual regulated exercise to activate the muscles, the heart, and the oxygen flow.

A proper warm-up increases body temperature, and muscles and joints loosen up for better results during wheelchair exercises. 

Here’s a quick warm-up guide you can follow:

  1. First, stretch your arms straight forward and pull the arms back at least ten times, close to your chest muscles, to mobilize the shoulder blades and joints.
  2. Next, raise one arm (e.g., right arm, right elbow) while the other (e.g., left hand) points in the opposite direction, and vice versa, at least ten times.
  3. Then, stretch both arms up with palm facing forward, and pull the elbows (bent) back to a shoulder-length position at least ten times.
  4. Lastly, perform breathing exercises at least ten times.

Stretching Exercises

Stretching exercises are also necessary; you can incorporate them with the warm-up. You can do repetitive arm raises with a medicine ball, aeroplane arms, marching motion for your feet while seated, and even slow side twists.

Use Proper Form

In every exercise, whether it be cardio or strength training, never forget to maintain the proper form:

  • Sit upright
  • Hands-on the lap (for leg exercises)
  • Feet flat on the ground

Wear Protective Gear

Also, wear protective gear when exercising using dumbbells, bands, medicine balls, and even for holding the wheels indoors or outdoors. The following are some of the standard gear seniors in wheelchairs can use:

  • Grip-assist gloves
  • Compression socks
  • Lap belts

TIP: Check out some of the best wheelchairs for outdoors and the other types of wheelchairs from these articles. 

Use a Padded Seat

In exercising, the main goal is to work the body from the most comfortable position at your chair’s seat. With this, a padded seat or the best cushions for wheelchairs can help provide comfort while ensuring that your posture is correct, and it can even act as a shock absorber.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

We answered some of your FAQs in this section. Read on!

What Exercises Are Recommended for Elderly Individuals Who Use Wheelchairs?

Cardio and strength exercises are recommended for the elderly who use wheelchairs, such as those listed in this article. In summary: 

  • Wheelchair racing and aerobics
  • Upper and lower body strength training

What Precautions Should Be Taken When Exercising in a Wheelchair?

Before exercising in a wheelchair, make sure that you observe the following:

  • Warm-up and stretching
  • Proper form 
  • Wearing protective gear and using a padded seat
  • Ensure wheels are locked when they’re not in use
  • Always consult your physical therapist or doctor before doing any exercises

What are the benefits of exercise for elderly persons who rely on wheelchairs?

Older people who rely on wheelchairs can benefit from exercises, as the latter can improve:

  • cardiovascular health;
  • muscle strength;
  • flexibility; and
  • balance and coordination

What advantages can seniors in wheelchairs gain from regular exercise?

Seniors in wheelchairs can gain the following advantages from regular exercise:

  • Improved quality of life (physical, emotional, and mental)
  • Improved muscle strength, stamina, and endurance
  • Prevent cardiovascular disease and bone fractures

Improved circulation, skeletal muscle, and core strength


Now that you know all about the exercises for senior wheelchair users, plus their execution, and benefits, you are ready to take action or help your seniors move towards a happy life and healthier well-being.