5 Ways to Stay Fit If You Have Physical Limitations

You want to work out and be fit. However, if you have physical limitations and can’t exercise like everyone else, it can be frustrating. In fact, at times, you may even feel like giving up completely.

To overcome these natural feelings and stay motivated, it’s important to realize that there are a lot of options for you to stay active, according to Colleen Little, P.T., D.P.T., a physical therapist with Therapeutic Associates in Lake Oswego, Ore. “Get recommendations from your physical therapist and your doctor,” she said. “You may surprise yourself and discover a new activity that you really enjoy.”

Follow these five tips to create a fitness routine that works for you:

1. Focus on your heart rate

For those in a wheelchair, elevating your heart rate – without going overboard – is the key to proper healing. It’s important to work closely with your doctor or physical therapist to determine which target heart rate is best for you to be working at during different activities.

2. Strength train

Resistance bands are a great tool for maintaining upper-body strength. You can take them anywhere and do a variety of moves. “Attach the band to a door and perform rows or lateral pull downs,” Little said. “Or, attach the band under your wheelchair and do biceps curls or overhead presses.” Consult a physical therapist on what specific band exercises would be best for you, given your body’s needs and limitations.

3. Don’t forget to stretch

Catherine Sweeney-Thompson, P.T., A.T.P., a physical therapist and assistive technology professional at the Providence Wheelchair Seating Clinic in Portland, said that active people who use manual wheelchairs often have tight, overdeveloped chest and arm muscles, but are weaker in the muscles surrounding their shoulder blades. “Stretching certain areas while strengthening their opposing muscle groups is important to stay properly aligned,” Sweeney-Thompson said.

4. Go low-impact 

“Find a non-weight bearing activity that does not aggravate your symptoms or go against any precautions put in place by your doctor or physical therapist,” Little said. Deep water pool running, swimming and water aerobics are all good ways to maintain your cardiovascular fitness without putting added pressure on your joints and muscles. Another option, depending on your injury or limitations, is to find a clinic that has an Alter G treadmill. “It looks and acts like a normal treadmill, except that it eliminates gravity and resistance,” Little said. “Your body is basically weightless as you run or walk.”

5. Try new things

Sometimes it’s all a matter of trial and error to figure out what fitness activities will work best for you. Whether it’s swimming, yoga, rowing or tai chi, the options are endless. “Physical therapists are creative, and they can almost always find something that keeps you moving, healthy and happy,” Little said.


Lindsey Emery

Lindsey Emery is a Portland-based health and fitness writer. Prior to her move to the Pacific Northwest, Lindsey was the senior fitness editor at Fitness magazine. A graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lindsey spends most of her downtime running, biking, hiking and baking. She lives in southeast PDX with her husband, Eddy, and their cat, Reggie. You can find her online at or on twitter @FITNESSlindsey

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