Fitness programs improve quality of life for wheelchair users

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Craig Hood
Craig Hood

It's important that long-term care professionals overcome lingering misconceptions that long-term care residents are too weak to exercise, risk injury if they do, and cannot exercise at all if they are wheelchair users. Research has shown that even the frailest resident can gain many physical and psychological benefits from a fitness program.

One study found that residents who participated in resistance training three times a week, using rehab equipment to strengthen their thighs and knees increased:

  • muscle strength by 113%
  • walking speed by 12%
  • ability to climb stairs by 28%

Wheelchair users run a greater risk of diminished mental acuity and depression, as well as complicated health issues, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or coronary heart disease. Pressure sores may develop in those who are confined to a wheelchair, and excess weight gained from a sedentary life adds strain on the joints of the musculoskeletal system, contributing to osteoarthritis.

Fitness programs can be effectively used to:

  • increase muscular strength and endurance
  • improve joint flexibility and range of motion
  • strengthen bone mass
  • improve respiratory ability and efficiency
  • relieve some of the painful symptoms of arthritis
  • improve circulation
  • reduce high blood pressure

What's more, exercise programs geared toward wheelchair users can help them take greater control over their own aging process, improve their mental outlook and have a better quality of life.  

Exercise generates endorphins, body awareness and muscle strength, while relieving stress and enhancing self-esteem. It also improves a resident's ability to achieve a deeper and more restful sleep, which is essential for preserving emotional and physical health.

Regardless of the resident's age, physical condition or exercise experience, there are a number of techniques for helping them exercise and gain from its many benefits. Any type of exercise can be augmented to the resident's needs and limitations.

  • Cardiovascular – A series of seated repetitive movements will raise the patient's heart rate and help them burn calories.
  • Strength Training– If the resident has limited mobility in his or her legs, focus on building upper body strength. Resistance bands can be attached to furniture, a doorknob, or the wheelchair. They can be used for pull-downs, shoulder rotations and arm and leg-extensions.
  • Flexibility – Flexibility is important for enhancing range of motion, preventing injury and reducing pain and stiffness. Even with limited mobility in the legs, a resident can still benefit from stretches and flexibility exercises to prevent or delay further muscle atrophy.

For some residents, medical conditions may exclude certain wheelchair exercises. Also, for those just starting out their exercise regimens, it is imperative to discuss their exercise plan with a physician, who can offer some suggestions or prohibit exercises that may be either too strenuous or too likely to aggravate an existing medical condition.

Craig Hood is the executive vice-president and founder of Allegro Medical.

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