Exercise is important at any age to maintain strength, mobility and flexibility. As you age, you tend to lose strength in your muscles if you don't exercise them often. You become off balance and lose your endurance, keeping you from walking far distances or climbing flights of stairs. If you've lost some mobility because of injury or illness and are using a wheelchair, you can still improve your quality of life through exercise. This helps build stronger cardiovascular function, as well as healthy muscle tone.
Before You Start
Always talk to your doctor before starting or changing your exercise routine. Whether you are recovering from surgery and need a wheelchair temporarily or a lack of mobility means you rely on a wheelchair daily, exercise can help improve upper-body strength and blood flow to your muscles, including those in your legs. Listen to your body and stop an exercise if it begins to feel painful to prevent injury. Your doctor might advise you to work only your upper body, saving lower-body work for when you're supervised by a professional during physical therapy sessions.
Working your arms can help raise your heart rate, improving cardiovascular function, increase your upper-body strength and help you become more flexible. Hold a lightweight ball in your hands and sit up straight. Lift the ball over your head, then move it in a circle in front of you, as if you were following the hands of a clock. Stop at the top and make a circle in the other direction. That's one repetition. Complete eight repetitions. This exercise helps improve the range of motion in your shoulder and builds your arm and chest muscles. For more intensity, use a weighted ball. Also, you can hold the ball in front of you at chest level and squeeze it slightly. Push it away from your chest and draw it back in, controlling the movement.
Working the muscles in your legs can help improve their strength, perhaps getting you on your feet again. Start with your ankles. Lift your foot and make a circle with your toes, making your ankles more flexible; this can improve your balance when you start walking more. Rotate each ankle four times. Strengthen your shins and calves by placing your foot on the floor and alternatively lifting your toes and your heels. Push your heels into the floor as you lift your toes, stretching your calves, and lift your heels while leaving your toes on the floor to work your shins. Perform four repetitions of each exercise. Then, lift one foot at a time to work your thigh muscles, starting low and working up to holding your leg parallel to the floor for eight repetitions on each leg. Ankle weights can add resistance when you're ready. Work your hips as well by lifting your thigh off your seat once your leg is parallel to the floor.
Engaging your core helps strengthen your back, stomach and sides, improving your body's flexibility and range of motion. Hold a lightweight ball in your hands near your body, bending your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Turn as far to the left as you can without leaning over, then return to center. Turn to the right as far as you can. Repeat both moves for eight repetitions. Help strengthen the muscles around your spine by stretching. Sit up straight and reach up with one arm. Point the other arm toward the floor, down by your side. Push with your shoulders so that your raise the upper arm slightly and lower the bottom arm. You should feel this pull on your back. Relax, then push with your shoulders again. Reverse your hands and complete the stretch again.
Tai chi is a type of Chinese martial arts that helps focus your mind while it builds your muscles, balance, flexibility and endurance. It's often done in a group setting, adding a social aspect to the workout. Tai chi combines deep breathing with circular, controlled motions. The motions include sweeping both hands back behind your ears, down to your waist and out in front of you, breathing in as you pull your hands back and breathing out as you push them forward. It also involves turning your torso as you move your arms, working your core areas. Dr. Zibin Guo of the University of Tennessee has adapted tai chi moves to work with people in wheelchairs to improve their mood, get them physically active and gain a social outlet. Wheelchair tai chi participants report improved breathing, increased flexibility, higher energy levels and a faster return to normal activity after two months of classes.