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Simple workouts for muscle strength, mobility and mental health

From reducing pain to improving mobility and even enhancing body image, these ability-tailored exercises can have far-reaching benefits.

If you have a disability, severe weight problem, chronic health condition such as arthritis or diabetes or a severe injury, you may assume that your ability to perform meaningful exercise is limited – if not ruled out completely. The truth is, regardless of your current physical condition, age and whether you’ve previously exercised, there are many ways to access the physical and mental benefits of exercise. In addition to global benefits such as managing body weight, decreasing cardiovascular disease risk and releasing feelgood brain chemicals (endorphins), for people with disability, exercise may even help to alleviate pain and degenerative symptoms and help to build areas such as muscle strength and power, balance, agility and flexibility – which can effectively help to improve mobility. Certain types of exercise can also support bone density, in turn reducing the risk of major damage such as fractures from a fall or knock. As a bonus, regular exercise can incidentally improve body image. Exercise has been shown to improve people’s feelings about their bodies regardless of changes in weight or perceived flaws or imperfections. The effects of exercise can be life-changing!

Finding your fit

The key point when considering exercise is considering it within the context of your individual strengths and limitations. A good way to identify exercises that target specific goals (e.g. upper body strength) and accommodate your current needs and incremental progress is to involve your physiotherapist, occupational therapist or both in your exercise planning. They have detailed knowledge of your condition and health history and can tailor a plan to develop areas required to safely perform certain exercise (for instance, if you want to start swimming and have limited lower limb use, you may need to first develop the upper body strength to propel yourself through water, which may involve a preliminary training program). Consultation is especially important if you suffer from a condition that directly affects your muscles (such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis) as exercises may need to be modified.

Starter workout ideas 

As you look through these exercise ideas, the appropriateness of each for your situation will probably be obvious. However, if you are considering incorporating any of these moves into your routine, it may be a good idea to print these out and discuss them with your healthcare provider (e.g. physio or OT), who can help to tailor them to your goals and help you to practise safe, effective technique.

Upper-Body Workout

These workouts are appropriate for those without upper-body or upper-limb injuries or limitations and can be done while sitting on a chair, wheelchair or bed. These exercises use a resistance band (an inexpensive, stretchy band that causes resistance against your effortful movements). 

  • Chest Press – Loop the band around the back of your chair and grab the ends (or a little further in if the band is too long) at chest level. Stretch the band with both hands until your arms are extended and hands are reaching straight out in front. Return to the starting position and repeat. Perform three repetitions or as many as recommended by your physio or as comfortable for you.
  • Reverse Fly – Hold the band with each hand on one end so that the band is horizontal and straight out in front of you. Arms should be extended forward. Stretch the band in an outward and backward motion like a bird while keeping arms straight but without locking elbows. Repeat as many times as is comfortable.
  • Bicep Curl – Wrap the band under the armrests or wheels of your wheelchair or chair. Hold one end of the band in each hand. Rest one hand on your thigh and use the other arm to stretch the band upwards by bending the elbow and pulling the hand upwards (this will resemble a ‘curl’). Return the hand to the thigh using control and perform with other arm. Repeat three times on each side or as many times as recommended by your physio or OT.

Weight Training

For these exercises, the amount of weight used (dumbbells are the most common weight type)  and number of sets and reps will depend on your physical condition and fitness level. Seek advice from a physio or OT to optimise these variables. 

  • Shoulder Press – Hold weights in both hands and bend elbows up so that weights are at shoulder height. With palms facing forward, simultaneously ‘press’ both arms upwards so that elbows extend and you’re reaching for the sky above your shoulders. Lower back down. Repeat to complete a set.
  • Tricep Extension – Hold one dumbbell with both hands above your head. Arms are extended. From there, bring dumbbell back down towards your back, behind your head.  Extend as far as possible and return to starting position.
  • Bicep Curl – Dumbbells can increase the difficulty and effects of regular bicep curls.  Hold one dumbbell in each hand, arms stretched out in front of you. Palms should face forward. Using your arms and bending your elbows, bring the weights up towards your shoulders. Take care not to raise your elbows. Lower weights back down and repeat.

Lower-Body Workout 

Generally, leg exercises are appropriate for people who have some mobility. Check with your physio or other healthcare provider before performing any new exercise. This simple, isometric lower-body/leg exercise is targeted to building muscle tension without stretching the muscle.

Chair Leg Extension

In a regular chair or wheelchair, sit up straight. Holding the armrests, keep one foot on the footrest or floor and slowly raise the other foot upward with your foot flexed towards your shin to create muscle tension. At the top of the movement, your leg will be stretched out in front of you with your foot flexed. Hold for a few seconds and slowly, with control, lower your foot back down to the footrest or floor. Repeat with other leg. Repeat for recommended number of reps.

Sit to Stand (if you are able to stand safely)

This exercise is as simple as it sounds. Start in a sitting position in a firm chair with support (do not use a soft, cushioned armchair or lounge chair). Holding the armrests for support, push up to a standing position. You may place a mobility aid or walking frame in front of the chair for support upon standing. From there, return to a sitting position, again using the armrests for support if needed. Try to lower your body with control rather than ‘falling’ back into the chair.

Whether your goal is to improve your muscle strength and/or in turn, mobility, reduce pain or boost your mental health (or all three), speak to your physio or OT about which exercises are best for you and how to perform them with safe, effective technique.

blank About Author

Nav

A Soaring Health fixture since 2017, Nav has a vast range of physiotherapy experience including hospitals, nursing homes, community health centres and private practice. This diverse foundation has equipped him with the expertise, clinical judgment and empathic bedside manner to optimally manage clients with complex needs, including rehabilitation post-surgery, TAC recovery and pain management.

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