New Horizons: Exercising With Limited Mobility

Nearly 40 percent of seniors have at least one disability, and the majority of that number have mobility challenges too. However, senior exercise shouldn’t be impacted by limited mobility. Many creative approaches are in motion to help mobility-challenged seniors stay fit.

Adapting to the Changes

“Having a mobility issue – whether from a disability, injury, or chronic condition – changes many parts of a person’s life,” says Callie Whitwell, chief operating officer and founding partner at Lifetime Wellness. Her company provides person-centered wellness, life enrichment, and recreational programming to independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation, and memory care facilities throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

“Limited mobility can make it difficult to participate in many of the activities that once made life so enjoyable,” she notes. “Along with physical restrictions, this loss often affects mental health, triggering feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger. It’s important to adapt to the changes in your body through positive approaches, and exercise is a vital tactic.

“If you have mobility challenges, you may think it’s impossible to exercise. Yet, regardless of your level of function, many activities are available to help you reap the benefits of staying in motion.”

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Assessing the Options

Although some senior exercise activities are more challenging than others for individuals with physical limitations, Whitwell notes that three types of exercise are essential to a well-rounded workout:

  • Flexibility exercises. These activities keep joints flexible, improve range of motion, and reduce pain and stiffness. For seniors with limited mobility in their legs, flexibility exercises, such as chair yoga and other stretching exercises, can help improve blood flow. Tai Chi, an ancient system of gentle physical exercise and stretching, can also be practiced in a chair. “Tai Chi provides a series of slow, focused movements accompanied by deep breathing,” Whitwell notes. “It’s an ideal option if you’re confined to a wheelchair, have a bad back, or can’t stay on your feet for long.”
  • Aerobic activities. These exercises improve blood circulation and are essential not only to enhancing cardiovascular health but also boosting brain and memory function. “Seated exercises, a series of repetitive movements done when you’re sitting down, help build endurance and strengthen your heart,” Whitwell says. “If you like to dance, chair dancing and wheelchair dancing enable you to move to the music while seated – and stay in coordinated movement with other chair dancers.”Those with access to a pool may want to try water aerobics. “The water supports your body, has less impact on the joints, and makes motion easier,” Whitwell notes. “Another popular choice is ‘exergames,’ video activities that simulate a participatory sport. These games can be played seated in a chair or wheelchair and are engaging ways to elevate your heart rate.”
  • Strength training. Building strength is essential to avoiding muscle deterioration, curtailing bone density loss, and preventing falls. “If you have limited mobility in your legs or are in a wheelchair, you can focus on strengthening your upper body by using free weights and resistance bands while seated,” Whitwell says. “Or, if you have an injury in your upper body, you can focus on strength training in your legs and core.”
Appreciating the Mental Benefits

Exercise fortifies not only the body but also the mind. It can elevate mood, improve memory, and protect the brain from age-related mental decline.

“Physical activity creates a natural euphoric feeling, relieves stress and anxiety, and helps enhance mental well-being overall,” Whitwell says. “Those good feelings can be amplified by participating in group exercise, which provides a sense of shared purpose and social belonging. Many local community centers and senior care programs offer exercise classes for people with mobility challenges.”

Accelerating Gradually

If you’re just beginning to exercise after a long period of inactivity, start slowly, Whitwell advises. “Talk with your health care professional to assess your physical condition and go over any medications. Focus on your abilities, not your limitations. Evaluate how much exercise you can do safely each week and the activities that will bring you the greatest returns. Begin with a routine that feels comfortable, go at an easy pace, and push yourself gently. Set realistic goals, track your activities, and celebrate your progress.

“Every person, at any age or health status, has the potential for wellness. The more you move, the more your body will embrace the routine. No matter your starting point, the key is to start! And stick with it. Even a little bit of exercise will go a long way toward getting fit and staying healthy.”