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Cardio: How Can You Safely Incorporate Cardio As A Wheelchair User?

Updated: May 6

Important tips for improving your cardio vascular endurance in and out of a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury, stroke, or traumatic brain injury.


Cardiovascular fitness or endurance measures your ability to do exercises that involve your whole body at moderate to high intensity for an extended period of time. Improving your cardiovascular endurance can reduce your risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. But how can you incorporate exercises that involve your whole body when you are living with partial paralysis or increased tone and spasticity?


Below are principles that I encourage all NMR clients to consider when making a plan to add more cardio into their workout routine.



Tip #1 - Do not push your wheelchair as a form of cardio


This one might be a little controversial, but let me explain. If you are a manual wheelchair user pushing your chair is something that you need to do to get from place to place. Depending on how much ground you cover in a given day, that can demand a lot from your shoulders. Because of its large range of motion, your shoulder joint is considerably less stable than some of the other joints in your body and is at increased risk of injury. For these reasons, I advise most manual wheelchair users to find other exercises as forms of cardio, keeping in mind that the daily task of pushing the chair is already accomplishing some of that.


An exception can be made for manual wheelchair users who compete in a sport or activity that requires them to sprint and turn in their chairs. Even then, the focus of that kind of sport specific cardio training should be on emphasizing proper form when turning or sprinting without compromising speed. Speaking to a trainer, physical, or occupational therapist may be helpful to receive coaching on proper pushing technique.



Tip #2 - Do not assume that strength is more important than cardio


Many clients that I have worked with prioritized strength training over cardio because they wanted to build more strength in order to complete their daily tasks easier. While strength training does accomplish this, improving your cardiovascular endurance can help you increase your ability to do those tasks longer and take less breaks. For example, you need strength in order to transfer in and out of your wheelchair but if you are exhausted after a few transfers you may need to improve your cardiovascular fitness or muscular endurance.


Tip #3 - Understand that cardio is about more than just weight loss


There is a common misconception that cardio is the best way to lose weight. It isn‘t. Put in simple terms, you will lose weight if the energy/calories burned from your daily activity is more than the energy provided by the food that you eat. Nutrition is a key element of overall fitness that cannot be ignored. Speaking to a nutritionist about your diet is a great way to get an accurate picture of what you are actually consuming in a day.


When it comes to burning calories during daily activity, planned exercise and non exercise related activities are two key things to consider. The exercises that burn the most calories are those that recruit the most muscles in your body and those that progressively challenge your muscular and cardiovascular system.


Cardio can help you lose weight, but it also strengthens your immune system, helps to reduce chronic pain, and aids in sleep among other things. Try to engage in cardiovascular exercise to take advantage of it’s many benefits, not just weight loss.

There is a common misconception that cardio is the best way to lose weight. It isn't.

Tip #4 - Prioritize whole body movements


Choose exercises that engage as many muscles as you can voluntarily contract and then try to complete them as many time as you can in about a minute or so. Can you roll over independently or with little help? Roll on the bed or on the floor in both directions for one minute on each side.


Can you stand? Perform as many sit to stands as you can in a minute or a minute and thirty seconds, then progressively try to increase that number. Maybe you have very limited strength and trunk control. Sit forward in your chair so you cannot use your backrest and lean as far as you can to one side while still being able to bring yourself back up to mid line. Do these lateral leans as many times as you can before you loose your balance then progressively increase that amount. Another way to make it harder is to increase the pace and depth of your lean.


Tip #5 - Switch it up


Cardio can be boring if you do the same exercises over and over again with no variety. If you primarily focus on one muscle group or one type of movement you may be neglecting another part of your body and you may get bored. If you primarily move forward when you do cardio, try moving side to side or backwards. If you push all day long, try pulling or twisting motions.


Find a friend or family member to do cardio with you. They can do their own exercises indoors or outdoors while you exercise and you can motivate one another.


Variety and Consistency are Key


Keep your cardio exercises relatively simple and add variety so you’ll be more likely to stick with them. If you would like more suggestions comment on this post or reach out through our Instagram page. Also, if you are a wheelchair user and you have any favorite forms of cardio, share it with us!

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