Physical exercise has a long list of health benefits and is usually a top recommendation for just about everyone, no matter their ability. That includes people with a disability.
Starting or keeping up an exercise routine can feel daunting. It can be confusing and discouraging to not be clear on how far, fast or hard you need to go to get the benefits you’re after when the recommendations you’re seeing don’t make sense for you.
When it comes to a regular movement or exercise routine, it’s helpful to have measurable, attainable goals that are simple to understand and track. That’s why the concept of “steps” is so common — for people who take steps, it’s a fast and easy way to gauge how much they’ve moved and use it as motivation to get in a certain amount of activity.
Not everyone takes steps the same way or walks at all. The crucial part of the recommendation for moderate activity is not explicitly stepping but having a physical movement goal that works for your body.
Change “steps” to a movement goal that works for you
Moderate activity of any kind is important because moving even a little is better than not moving at all, especially for folks with a disability.
There’s a lot of talk about walking and tracking steps, but stepping, walking and running aren’t the only ways to measure movement. We can adapt the concept of steps to other kinds of moderate activity goals. Moving any body part or combination of parts counts as physical activity as long as it sufficiently challenges your body.
The key is to figure out what feels best for you and how you like to move. No matter the action, you’ll get benefits from whatever goal inspires you to get moving and then to track your progress so you can feel motivated and confident.
1. Track your distance, time or heart rate instead
Tracking distance is a great way to standardize your workout and gives you a baseline to start with. The distance itself doesn’t matter. If you use a walking aid, you might travel less far than a standard “steps” recommendation. If you use a wheelchair, you might go a whole lot farther.
The important part here is to use distance or time as a measure that you can track and possibly work to improve on. Try moving for 15-20 minutes in whatever way feels comfortable for you and track how far you travel.
If your goal is to exercise more, here are a few examples of how you can build on your baseline:
- Increase the distance or time spent moving
- Move the same distance in a shorter amount of time to increase exercise intensity
- See how far or fast you can go in a particular heart rate zone
2. Pick another activity
Instead of a distance- or time-based movement goal, you can also get exercise from:
- Household chores
- Playing with a child or a pet (or both!)
- Getting groceries or going to the store
- Active stretching or yoga
- Playing sports
3. Try to only compare yourself to yourself
It’s (really) hard to avoid the pressure to compare ourselves to others. Especially when it comes to physical activity, sometimes you might feel less than or not good enough based on someone else’s progress.
When that happens, remind yourself that you’re supporting your body, health and wellbeing by staying active, no matter how you choose to do it. If you’re pushing yourself to try new things, move your body, and explore what physical activity means for you, then that is exercise success and you deserve to feel good about it.
Let’s get physical
We can adapt lots of popular exercises and activities so folks with a broader range of abilities can get their sweat on. These are three areas of more intense activity that will help boost your overall health and wellbeing.
1. Aerobic activities
Great for lung and heart health, aerobic exercises work by increasing your heart rate and breathing for an extended time. Aim for at least 2.5 hours (150 minutes) of moderate aerobic activity or 1.25 hours (75 minutes) of vigorous high-intensity aerobic exercise each week. Moderate-to-vigorous activity makes you breathe harder and your heart pump faster than usual. It can sometimes make you sweat, too.
- Wheeling or walking at a brisk pace, hiking or running
- Tricycling, hand-bicycling or using an adaptive bike
- Swimming, water aerobics or aquatic therapy
- Dancing (with a partner or in the living room like nobody’s watching)
Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once! Work towards hitting this recommendation in chunks throughout the week to make it more manageable.
There’s no right or wrong way to get some aerobic exercise in as long as it’s safe for you. Check in with your healthcare providers to get personal recommendations on what’s best for you. After that, whatever you love to do will be effective as long as it gets your heart pumping and you feel a bit out of breath.
2. Muscle and bone-strengthening activities
Working different muscle groups to build up your strength and power is a great way to take care of your body:
- Resistance band and weighted medicine balls
- Weight training with a handgrip aid
- Arm ergometer or arm bike
- Adaptive rowing
- Any sport with a beeper ball, beep kickball or beep frisbee
- Adaptive jump rope
- Martial arts
3. Teamwork makes the dream work
Seated doesn’t mean sedentary. There are adapted team or partner sports leagues that can help you check off both your aerobic and strength-building goals at the same time. Win-win!
Some of the most popular include:
- Powerchair sports, like soccer, curling, hockey, bowling, bocce ball, and more.
- Wheelchair sports, like tennis, basketball, racing, badminton, volleyball, baseball, table tennis, and more.
- Sports for folks with limb differences or loss, like archery, cycling, fencing, rowing, shooting, skiing, biathlon, sled hockey, and many more.
For more info, the International Wheelchair & Amputee Sports Federation has details about multiple sports organizations across the U.S. and Canada.