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The benefits of exercise and how to do it with a disability

Regular exercise can bring a multitude of benefits, both physical and mental. Journalist Ian Cook has multiple sclerosis, a condition which changes over time, so firmly believes that when it comes to exercise ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. In this article, Ian discusses the best ways to make exercise work for you, whatever your condition. 

Being disabled doesn’t mean you should think less about exercise than a non-disabled person. And it certainly doesn’t mean you will gain less from exercising than non-disabled people. In fact, the opposite can be the case. Just watch Tokyo’s Paralympics later this year and you will see the great benefits that can be gained by disabled people through exercise.

You may not be aiming to become an elite sportsman or woman, but every disabled person can benefit from exercise even if at a more modest level. Disabled people with limited mobility often miss out on the health benefits that come from simple everyday activities like housework or short walks that are easy for non-disabled people. But you have alternatives, and with a little planning and preparation, you can find ways to build an exercise regime that will bring you the many rewards of fitness.

Healthy heart and mind

But before you start planning that exercise regime, it’s helpful to remind yourself of the principal benefits exercising brings. Firstly, exercise is good for the heart and can also help to strengthen muscles. Improving the strength and health of your heart and toning up your muscles will have a substantial influence on other bodily functions and improve the quality of your life. The reason for this quality of life benefit is that exercise stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, the so-called “feel-good hormones”. As a result, people who exercise regularly are believed to suffer less anxiety, less depression, and enjoy a greater sense of fulfilment with their lives.

Social benefits

Exercise also provides great opportunities for meeting people. Whether you work out in a gym or choose to join a group of other people for training or sport, exercise provides a chance to meet new people and make new friends. Together with the other benefits, this means exercise can open up a brand new world for you. And best of all, the fitness community is one where you’ll find masses of support and encouragement too, making it well worth the effort to get started.

There is no “one size fits all” solution.

Getting started

In terms of which specific exercises to do, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Instead, a whole range of activities can help you improve your levels of general fitness. For example, wheelchair users can work out using upper body exercise machines and hand-cranked cycles, or by using free weights or resistance bands to build upper body strength. Wheelchair users may also be interested in boccia, the precision ball sport that is a little like bowls and is played sitting down. For those who can stand, there is a range of activities popular with disabled people—everything from archery to inclusive football or even walking netball. Water sports are an option too. Supervised swimming using a pool hoist and flotation aids is also a possibility for some, as well as aqua aerobics.

Five-point plan for exercising with a disability 

  1. Identify what the barriers are that may be preventing you from exercising. Is the venue inaccessible? Are there difficulties travelling there? Is fatigue a problem? Are you de-motivated?
  2. Develop a strategy for overcoming these problems. Parking your car can be a major barrier. Check out accessible parking in leisure centres or training venues. To motivate yourself, talk to disabled people who exercise and see how they overcome this. 
  3. Work out which exercises are best for you to do. Not every exercise will suit every disability. But many non-disabled sports like football can be adapted to suit disabled people such as inclusive or walking football.
  4. Make sure you take breaks while exercising. It is important to give your muscles a chance to rest when they are being put to work or exerted.
  5. Set goals and work hard to meet them. It’s important to reward yourself as you meet targets that you have set yourself and celebrate your achievements. 


Finally, you probably aren’t thinking of entering this year’s Tokyo Paralympics, but exercise brings many other rewards. It may not be a gold medal that you bring home after an exercise session but you will find exercise makes you fitter, healthier and hopefully happier—something that’s arguably worth more than its weight in gold.

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