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Fitness tips for wheelchair users

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Being a wheelchair user doesn't mean you should neglect your physical fitness and forget about exercising. It's just as important to stay fit and healthy.

True. It may not be as easy to exercise depending on your limitations and particular condition, and gyms can sometimes feel intimidating. But don't let that deter you, there's bound to be an option that works for you.

There are more than a million wheelchair users in the UK. However, a study in 2014 found that 72% of disabled people take part in no sport or physical activity compared to 48% of non-disabled people.

It's good for you!

Exercise is good for your physical and mental health. It can reduce your risk of major illness like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.

Government guidelines recommend adults do two and a half hours of moderate cardiovascular exercise every week, and muscle strengthening exercise on two or more days. If you are unfit, start off slowly and gradually increase the amount of time you spend exercising.

Using a wheelchair makes it harder to burn calories through general day-to-day activities like walking or running upstairs so it's easy to put on weight if you are not careful. Exercise will help burn off those calories.

Up the cardio

Philip Gill is a tutor at YMCAfit. He trains fitness professionals who work with wheelchair users.

He says: "Using a wheelchair can make it more difficult to do cardiovascular physical activity that raises your heart rate and makes you warm enough to break a sweat. This kind of exercise is important for your heart and lungs' health. If you miss this out you could put on weight over time."

The choice is yours

Which exercise you do will depend a lot on your physical ability and what you like doing. You may want to stay fit to help you in normal daily activities or you may want to take up a team sport. Whatever you do it should be enjoyable. It could be swimming or it could be wheelchair sprinting, for example.

There's a whole variety of wheelchair sports to choose from, among them are basketball, tennis, football and rugby. Not everyone is going to be a David Weir or a Tanni Grey-Thompson, but wheelchair athletes are a big inspiration and you can start at entry level and see where it takes you.

Gyms and classes

If you prefer a more individual approach, gyms and leisure centres may be the place for you. The best idea is to call around a few local places to see what they offer in terms of classes or specialist equipment.

An Inclusive Fitness Initiative scheme is run by the English Federation of Disability Sport, which encourages leisure centres to offer facilities particularly suitable for people with disabilities. Check out their website for centres near you.

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