Exercise and Home Workout Ideas

Staying fit as a wheelchair-user is essential. Almost every wheelchair-user eventually figures out their own workout regimen, so it’s up to you to find your own way of staying in shape after your spinal cord injury. From maintaining your heart health and improving your quality of life, to increasing your energy levels and enhancing your physical strength, working out on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do for yourself after sustaining a spinal cord injury.

Working out is also great for reducing pain and depression by increasing endorphin and serotonin levels in your brain. However, we know it’s not easy getting your workout regimen started, especially if you’re used to using your legs while working out. The good news? There are dozens of ways wheelchair-users can stay fit.

But first, the guidelines for wheelchair-users and exercise are as follows: A wheelchair-user should get a cardio workout twice a week for 20 minutes at a time. Strength training should also be completed twice a week for at least 20 minutes a time (or for three complete sets).

The main thing to remember when choosing a workout is to choose something you love doing. There are lots of options out there, as you’ll see below, but if you choose something you truly like, the chances of you following through with your bi-weekly workouts will skyrocket.

You don’t have to do a “serious” workout. Simply taking your dog for a walk, wheeling around a park, doing rigorous chores, cooking, gardening, and even chasing your kids around the house can be considered a workout. The kind of wheelchair you use (a manual vs. a powerchair) should also come into play when deciding on the right workout for you.

Also, if you want to exercise outside of the home but can’t afford a fancy workout club, check out your local rec center, community colleges, and rehab facilities. Many of them have discounted memberships for residents in the area, and these facilities are likely to have adapted workout equipment.

Fitness Ideas

  • Wheelchair Zumba: If you like dancing, then you’ll love Wheelchair Zumba. A combination of aerobics and dancing to high-tempo music (usually Latin music), this fun workout can be done from a wheelchair. Wheelchair Zumba focuses on the upper body and is an awesome way to burn calories. You can also do Wheelchair Zumba from the comfort of your own home using Youtube videos. We love Para Zumba, a paraplegic fitness instructor who has perfected the artform of Wheelchair Zumba in her home country of Poland.
  • Wheelchair Aerobics: Wheelchair Aerobics have been around since the early 1990s. A simple offshoot of aerobics, this exercise is another high-tempo, great way to burn calories. There are several wheelchair aerobic videos online you can watch for free so you can get a workout at home. Several rehab centers across the country also offer wheelchair aerobics if you want to learn this workout in a group setting. Search your area to see what is available.
  • Adaptive Yoga: While yoga has been around for centuries, adaptive yoga is a new fitness solution for people with spinal cord injuries. Adaptive yoga was invented in the 1980s by Matthew Sanford, a paraplegic from Minnesota. Taking in many of the principals from Iyengar yoga, adaptive yoga feels fantastic because much of it focuses on restoring natural body positions and movements. There are several adapted yoga videos available online, as well as DVDs for purchase.
  • Handcycling: A great way to work out with someone who is able-bodied, handcycling is definitely one of the most entertaining ways to burn calories. You can’t beat the changing views of riding a handcycle outdoors, and it’s always great to get outside and take in the fresh air. Being outdoors can help the mind and spirit. Handcycles are quite expensive, however. Consider a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to buy yourself a handcycle. Crowdfunding is an option many people with spinal cord injuries now utilize to purchase the equipment they need.
  • Wheelchair Dancing: Several popular dance styles have been adapted for the wheelchair, so if you loved dancing before your accident, you can still enjoy it today. Ballroom dancing is one of the most popular styles of wheelchair dance in the world. Hip-hop and lyrical dance are other forms of dance that have been adapted for the wheelchair. The Walk and Roll Dance Team from California is the world’s first wheelchair hip-hop dance group and was founded in 2012. Axis Dance and Infinite Flow are two other nationally-known adaptive dance studios, as well.
  • Boxing: A serious workout that can be done from the wheelchair is wheelchair boxing. This sport is a great way to burn calories, and is easy to set up: all you have to do is punch the air. If you have a Wii, consider playing Boxing on the Sports game that comes with the system. If you’re a quadriplegic, make sure to wear your chest strap while playing. This will maintain your balance so you can box your heart out without fear of falling out of your wheelchair.
  • Water Exercises: Getting in the pool is always a great idea, whether for a casual swim or for swimming laps. If you have trouble getting in, search your area; many health clubs and recreation centers now offer pools with lifts thanks to a requirement by the ADA.
  • Wheelchair Crossfit: The latest fitness craze for wheelchair-users is Wheelchair Crossfit, based off of the workout trend that is sweeping the country. Wheelchair CrossFit is much like the original sport, except several workouts requiring the legs are omitted, with more strenuous upper body workouts included instead. If you like activities such as pulling tires with your wheelchair, this is the sport for you.

Equipment Ideas

  • Vitaglide: A piece of equipment in the shape of a “V” that allows the wheelchair-user to grab onto the handles and pull on each side, this machine is a great cardio workout on a smooth track pulley system. You can purchase the Vitaglide here.
  • Standing Frame w/ elliptical: Standing frames are not only good for preventing osteoporosis, they’re a great cardio workout, too. Standing up can be a workout of itself after a spinal cord injury. If you’re lucky enough to purchase a standing frame that moves your legs as well, this makes for an even better workout, allowing you to burn more calories.
  • Accessible Universal Gym: Universal gyms have long been available for wheelchair-users, with several manufacturers creating fully accessible universal gyms across the country. If you have the money, going to a universal gym is great because the gym has so many resistance options. One of the most popular accessible universal gyms is by Cybex.
  • Resistance Bands: If lifting weights sounds too intimidating, resistance bands are a great alternative. These stretchy bands of plastic can be tied to a door handle, or to anywhere you can think of, as long as you have enough room to pull back and workout your arms. The commercial name for these is Theraband, and they come in different levels of resistance. Check them out here.
  • Arm Bike: Stationary arm bikes have long been one of the most popular workouts for those with only upper-body movement. These are a lot cheaper than handcycles, and a lot easier to use for quadriplegics. Many quadriplegics can even use an arm bike on their own without any help from anyone.
  • Punching Bag: If you decide to get into wheelchair boxing, installing a punching bag in your garage is a great idea. Not only is utilizing a punching bag a good cardio workout, but it’s a great stress reliever.
  • Free Weights: If you want to lift weights at home but need assistance holding the weights, consider getting Velcro wrist weights. They come in all different weights and sizes. Lifting weights is a great way to feel energized.

Need more fitness ideas? Watch the following video on a great aerobic workout from a wheelchair, and afterwards, make sure to read the Takeaway Points below.

Video: Spinal Cord Injury Aerobic Workout: Tetraplegia

Takeaway Points

  • People with spinal cord injuries should workout twice a week for 20 minutes at a time (20 minutes of cardio or 20 minutes of resistance training)
  • Working out can improve your energy and reduce pain and depression
  • Choose a workout that you genuinely enjoy doing
  • There are several workouts you can do in the comfort of your own home
  • Look at your local rec centers, community colleges, and rehab centers for accessible equipment and adapted fitness classes

Helpful Resources


Spinal Cord Injury
8315 N Brook Ln Apt 906,
Bethesda MD  20814
Phone Number: +1 703-795-5711