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Exercises for Seniors in Wheelchairs

author image Mary Tolley Rhodes
Mary Tolley Rhodes has been a practicing physical therapist since 2000, working in various settings across the southeastern United States. She serves as the chairwoman of the West Virginia Physical Therapy Association's Education Committee. Rhodes holds a master's degree in physical therapy from West Virginia University.
Exercises for Seniors in Wheelchairs
Female nurse looking at senior patient while assisting her in lifting a dumbbell. Photo Credit 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images

Older adults who are confined to wheelchairs don't have to give up on exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of exercise weekly for all adults. Traditionally, that recommendation has referred to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 5 days per week. The current statement, however, states that 10-minute bouts of exercise are sufficient for cardiovascular benefits and may be easier for a senior with limited mobility to achieve. Endurance training, strength training, flexibility and balance exercises can all be effectively executed from a wheelchair.


Endurance, or aerobic, exercises can be completed in a wheelchair. Propelling a manual wheelchair serves as both an upper body-strengthening exercise and endurance activity if you maintain a constant speed. You will need an open space; propelling around your home will not be intense or consistent enough for cardiovascular benefits. A restorator, or tabletop bicycle, is another way to achieve endurance exercise goals. You can place the restorator on a tabletop and use your arms to pedal it, or place it on the floor and use it as a traditional bicycle if you can sit in your chair and use your feet. While 10-minute increments have been found to be beneficial, you should work to increase your exercise time to 30 minutes to maximize the cardiovascular benefits, says LaVona S. Traywick, Ph.D., a gerontology professor at University of Arkansas.

Strength Training

Many strength training exercises adapt well to a seated position. Upper body exercises such as the bicep curl, upright row, chest press, overhead press, front shoulder raise and lateral shoulder raise can all be performed using resistance bands or dumbbells while sitting in a wheelchair. Knee extensions, seated marching and ankle pumps adapt well to a seated position. To increase the resistance, use resistance bands or ankle weights. Strength training for each muscle group should be completed 2 to 3 times per week but never on consecutive days to allow for muscle recovery.


Upper body stretching can be performed easily in a wheelchair. Some lower body stretches, however, will need to be adapted; others will yield better results performed in a bed. Perform finger and wrist stretches by gently pulling your fingers and wrist back. Shoulder muscles often become tight in the senior years. Raise your arm as high as you can in front of you. You can use your other arm, a cane or broomstick to help push the arm being stretched a little further. You can also stretch your shoulder using the same technique but raising your arm out to the side. If you can sit with your ankle on your knee, you can adequately stretch your ankle by pulling your foot up and then down. You can stretch your hamstrings by straightening your knee, placing your foot on your couch or coffee table, and leaning forward. Stretches should be held 15 to 30 seconds on each side for 3 to 5 repetitions daily.


If you are unable to safely stand, you can still focus on sitting balance exercises. If you have difficulty sitting, have someone assist with these exercises to prevent falls. Scoot to the edge of the chair and place your feet flat on the floor. Straighten your back and sit tall. Depending on your level of control, you can challenge your balance by placing your hands in your lap or out to the side. A more challenging exercise would be to reach for objects placed on the floor or in front of you. The farther you have to reach, the more challenging the task. If you have someone to assist you, you can also play catch and ask the other person to toss the ball so you have to reach for it.

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