Vital exercises for those with limited mobility

Don’t let limited mobility become an excuse for not exercising. It could, in fact, help you to get back in action

3d illustration of man on wheelchair with dumbbells

In the current wave of being health and fitness conscious, we may overlook a very large part of our world that lives with limited mobility. Individuals with limited mobility may include seniors, disabled adults, and those with chronic medical conditions. These people can be very close to us, including our siblings, our parents, grandparents and relatives.

How can these special individuals build and maintain their muscle mass, increase range of motion, and improve coordination? How can they keep their independence, enjoy their hobbies, and be a positive influence for others? The answer is exercise

Exercise is best for all ages

According to the National Institute on Aging, one of the best interventions for improving health at all ages, including old age, is exercise.

Without exercise, physical impairments will lead to greater functional limitations in everyday life. These limitations can include difficulty getting out of a chair, climbing stairs, lifting and reaching.

Fortunately, much of the decline we see in these individuals is reversible. Exercise not only improves their overall health, but also positively affects their everyday life too.

Exercise creates stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments. It improves mobility, coordination, range of motion, and creates better posture. This increased activity will improve functional mobility and delay the onset of physical frailty.

Fortunately, much of the decline we see in these individuals is reversible

Work on your major muscle groups

You will need to first strengthen your ankles, knees and hips. These muscles are used for walking, standing and getting up from a chair. Strengthening the abdominals will increase your core stability, posture, balance and general mobility.

Working on your chest, back, arms and shoulders will assist with pushing and carrying things, walking when swinging arms, spinal posture, pulling motions, and will help reduce the impact of a fall.

Exercise for persons with limited mobility: How to begin

Before you begin to exercise, talk to your physician and let them know you would like to start a strengthening programme. Then start with a simple workout of stretching and strengthening exercises. Begin with 2 – 3 workouts a week.

Gradually progress your programme to 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. Your exercise session can be spread out over the course of the day in 10 minute sessions. Make sure you perform strengthening exercises at least two days per week.

For your strength workout, start with a single set of 8 – 12 repetitions. You can use either free weights, your own body weight, or a resistance band. Work your large muscle groups before your small muscle groups. Make sure to rest for a minute between sets.

Strengthening the abdominals will increase your core stability, posture, balance and general mobility

3 important exercise principles

Seniors and others with limited mobility resulting from a chronic health condition should follow these three simple exercise principles.

1. First, the exercise should be functionally related to your daily life. If you have stairs at home, then work on your leg strength. If you have high cupboards, work on your shoulder range of motion.

2. Second, your exercise should be challenging. This will allow you to make the type of gains in mobility and strength that will truly make a difference in your life. For example, uses ankle weights when performing leg exercises to increase the benefit of the exercise, and effectively improve your leg strength.

3. Lastly, you should allow for fluctuation in your health. Some days you will be sick and unable to exercise. You may have an exacerbation of a health condition like arthritis or asthma. You may feel increased pain in your joints or have trouble breathing. Exercise to the best of your ability for that day. Listen to your body and don’t overexert.

Exercising with health conditions

Coronary heart disease

Avoid high intensity exercise which can cause a coronary event and know the warning signs for stopping exercise. Strength training is most important for this population because seniors with heart disease can grow increasingly sedentary. This results in decreased muscle mass and strength, loss of physical function, and the inability to perform daily activities.


Resting blood pressure increases with age. Monitor your blood pressure and make sure that exercising is not causing abnormal fluctuations, especially during the early stages of your programme.

Safety first

Make sure you warm up your muscles with a few minutes of limbering exercises for the neck, arms and legs. Begin strengthening with a light weight at first. Then gradually add more repetitions to your exercise, then more weight, then more sets.

Only work in a pain free range of motion. Discontinue an exercise if it is painful, or reduce the repetitions. When lifting a weight, never hold your breath. Breathe out on the effort part of an exercise, and breathe in during the relaxing part of the exercise. Avoid hyperextending or locking joints. Allow 48 hours between exercise workouts.

Strength training is most important for this population because seniors with heart disease can grow increasingly sedentary

Yoga and T’ai Chi

Mind-body practices like yoga and T’ai Chi Chuan can greatly benefit those with limited mobility. The movements in these practices integrate the mind or the awareness of your body movement with the exercise, and is coordinated with your breathing. In other words, the movements are done in a meditative state. Many older adults find these types of exercise beneficial in managing their fitness and health concerns.

Aquatic training

Many children and adults use aquatic training as their preferred means of exercise. The benefits of aquatic exercise include increased oxygen uptake, lowered blood lipid levels, increased muscle strength and endurance, and improved flexibility. Exercisers are more able to move through a complete range of motion in water.

Seniors love the playful and social benefits along with the physical improvements with aquatic exercise. The hydrostatic pressure is like a support stocking. It aids venous return and increased range of motion. It also reduces swelling, particularly in the feet.

The buoyancy and viscosity of water decreases the weight bearing impact of exercise, and reduces the compressive forces on the joints. It also decreases the fear of falling, especially in stroke patients and improves stability especially with limbs that are more flaccid.

It’s never too late to begin exercising

Recent research and studies show that exercise is safe and effective for women and men with physical disabilities, chronic health conditions, and age related changes, regardless of abilities. Muscle strengthening improves your ability to perform activities of daily living, which in turn, improves your overall health and sense of wellbeing.

It is never too late to start an exercise programme if you are a person with limited mobility.

Four essential exercises for those with limited mobility

Four essential exercises for those with limited mobility
4 easy exercises for those with limited mobility

1. Sit to stand

Begin seated on the edge of the chair, bring your toes under your knees, lean over and stand up 10 times.

2. Triceps press

Begin seated on the chair with your hands placed on the arm rests. Extend your elbows and lift your bottom off the chair 10 times.

3. Seated row

Place an elastic band on the chair in front, raise your elbows and pull straight back while pinching shoulder blades together 10 times.

4. Back extension

Be seated on the edge of the chair with an elastic band held firmly on the chest. Lean back with the elastic band on the chest. Repeat 10 times.

This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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Douglas Schrift
Douglas Schrift is a physical therapist, certified geriatric specialist, certified hand therapist, and senior fitness coach. He is the creator of Eldergym® Senior Fitness, and the author of Everyday Fitness For Seniors. He has produced over 10 exercise videos for seniors.


  1. I have all the videos what I haven`t got is the motivation, but at least I have the guide, and I try to incorporate exercise when I ham working in the kitchen, walking around the house, or even shopping. It is difficult as I suffer extreme breathlessness so most of my energy is taken up with daily living. I am trying to find a way to exercise in water but I fear the water knocking me off balance, so any tips would be welcome.


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