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Strength Training with a Disability

More Strength Means Greater Independence
  -- By Nicole Nichols, Fitness Instructor
Whether you have a disability or a chronic condition that limits your mobility, exercise doesn't have to be out of reach or even painful. In fact, depending on your condition, your health care provider has probably recommended that you increase your physical activity. That may have you wondering, "How am I supposed to move more when I have these limitations?"

Exercise provides so many health benefits, from decreased risk for heart disease to a better ability to maintain a healthy weight, and even a more positive body image and outlook—and these benefits extend to individuals with limitations as well. In fact, exercise may even help alleviate pain and degenerative symptoms associated with chronic conditions like arthritis, helping many people increase their mobility and independence while decreasing pain.

Why Strength Training?
Strength training exercises help increase your overall muscular strength, making everyday tasks and caring for yourself, others, and your household easier. Overall, maintaining your strength can help you remain independent and enjoy life experiences. For more details on strength training and its benefits, read SparkPeople's Strength Exercise Reference Guide.

Keep Your Safety in Mind
Before starting any exercise program, always check with your health care provider first—especially if you have a chronic condition or disability. Your doctor knows firsthand about your condition and health history and she can provide not only exercise ideas but also limitations based on your condition. This is especially important if you suffer from a condition that directly affects your muscles (such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis) and requires specific modifications.

In addition, remember to listen to your body and not to attempt any form of exercise that makes you uncomfortable or puts your safety at risk. For example, some individuals are comfortable swimming with only the use of their upper body to propel them. If you lack swimming training or upper body strength, or fear counting on your arms alone to keep you afloat, don't attempt this form of exercise—especially without help or supervision.

Remember to start out slowly. If it's been awhile since you've exercised or lifted heavy weights, always try strength exercises with no weights first so that you can ensure proper form. When you can complete 1-3 sets of each exercise with no weight, then move on to light weights, and gradually increase from there as you build strength. Remember that to build strength and stamina, you have to push your body past its limits, a principle known as overloading.

Last but not least, always warm up and cool down during each exercise session.

Special Considerations
Ninety-four percent of gyms do not offer machines that are accessible by wheelchair, according to recent surveys. But more progressive gyms are taking deliberate steps to be more inclusive to individuals with disabilities and mobility issues by making their layouts and equipment wheelchair-accessible. Before joining a gym, find out if their space and features are accessible to you. Freemotion, for example, is one major brand that makes weight machines that are accessible to both wheelchair and able-bodied exercisers. You may be more likely to find these features in university or hospital fitness facility, many of which offer memberships to the public.

If you have trouble using your hands, wrist cuffs that help secure weights in your hands can help. You may also want to consider using wrist weights or weighted gloves (instead of dumbbells) if this is the case.

If you suffer from a condition that causes your limbs to move involuntarily, try to use strength training machines instead of free weights. Machines (both those with wheelchair access and those without it) are designed to help your body stay in good form and offer more support so that you work in good form and within a safe range of motion.

SparkPeople's Seated Exercises
You can perform almost any strength training exercise from a chair or seated position. Virtually any upper body exercise can be done while seated instead of standing, and you can also strengthen your legs and abs from a chair as well. Many of SparkPeople's exercise demonstrations involve sitting in a chair and several standing exercises for the upper body can be modified to be done while seated, whether you're using dumbbells, resistance bands, or even no weights at all.

The following list includes strength training exercises (and the muscle groups they work) with demonstrations that already involve sitting on a chair. These are great for individuals with limited mobility. SparkPeople's Adaptable Exercises
The following list links  to exercise demos that you can easily modify to perform while seated in a chair. Each exercise lists the muscles worked and a note for how to modify it to meet your needs (sitting or standing). Not only will exercise tone your muscles and strengthen your heart, but working out can also help to improve your self-esteem and your feelings about your body. Talk to your doctor about starting your strength training program today!