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Cardio Exercise for People Who Do Not Have Use of Their Legs

author image Kristen McCarty
Kristen McCarty started writing wellness articles for students and faculty in 2007. She has worked as a certified athletic trainer and health educator at the collegiate and secondary school levels. She now writes for LIVESTRONG.COM. She holds a Bachelor of Science in sports medicine concentrating in athletic training from Mercyhurst College and a Masters of Arts in applied physiology from Teachers College-Columbia University.
Cardio Exercise for People Who Do Not Have Use of Their Legs
Cardio exercise can be done in a wheelchair. Photo Credit: Jupiterimages/ Images

Common cardio exercises include running, cycling and aerobics. These activities are all classified as lower body cardio activities. Upper body cardio routines are often neglected but can be used effectively to add light, medium or vigorous exercise to a rehabilitation or workout regimen. Upper body cardio exercises are ideal for those with temporary or permanent leg disabilities but can certainly be beneficial to all individuals.

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Upper body workouts are usually custom designed, taking into account whether lower body dysfunction is temporary or permanen. As with any aerobic workout, warm-up and cool-down components should be added to help prevent injury. Arm, back and shoulder muscles all assist in upper body aerobic activity. Upper body strength varies among individuals and even a short workout may leave one feeling exhausted. When starting a workout program it may be necessary to aim for a total of 10 to 20 minutes of activity.

Individual Exercises

Many clinics and gyms offer rowing machines, upper body ergometers, swimming pools, and boxing rooms. These can all be used by those with limited leg function. A rowing machine provides aerobic workouts to the biceps, triceps, pectoralis muscles, and the upper back muscles. An upper body ergometer (arm bike) looks like an upside-down bike that is pedaled with your hands. In the pool, shallow water arm movements with leg stabilization can be done to stress the arms, chest and upper back. With assistance, a seated modified boxing workout can be completed with the aid of medical personnel.

Team Sports

For those with a competitive streak, the Wheelchair Sports Federation offers many competitive adaptive exercise programs. The Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports, USA also organizes local club competitions which can qualify athletes for national events. Wheelchair sports include basketball, track and field, and table tennis.


Cardio exercise, both lower and upper body, burns calories and increase metabolism. Upper body cardiovascular activity is usually non-weight-bearing and therefore tends to be low-impact. Upper body aerobic exercise will also help tone and define arm muscles. Completing an exercise program can improve the mental health and well-being of those who cannot participate in lower body exercises.


Upper body aerobic capacity is limited compared to lower leg capacity. Due to the smaller blood vessels used to supply muscles with oxygen, there is an increased risk of complication for those diagnosed with high blood pressure. Check with your physician prior to starting an upper body cardio program.

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