Physical Activity for Adults With Chronic Illnesses and Disabilities

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, set by the CDC, recommend that adults with chronic health conditions and adults with disabilities should exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes per week, or 30 minutes five times a week, to be exact. The idea that we should move more and sit less applies to all adults, but for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities — including cancer survivors and people with osteoarthritis, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, spinal cord injury, dementia, and other cognitive disorders — physical exercise can significantly improve health conditions and maximize quality of life.

Today, we’ll be going over a few exercises that may help reduce pain and improve strength, as well as different types of and who they may benefit most. Note that exercises for those with disabilities or chronic conditions should only be done if able, and that you should consult with your doctor or physical therapist to create a personalized exercise plan best suited for you.


Adaptive Fitness

Adapted fitness is a comprehensive approach to physical training for differently-abled individuals. It uses exercise routines and machines that are safe for these bodies, as well as knowledgeable personal trainers who make sure their clients safely reach their goals – including everything from aquatic exercise, cycling, jogging, circuit training, yoga, and more.

Exercises may include:

  • Medicine Ball Slam
  • Frog Jumps
  • Knee Planks
  • Full Planks
  • Bent Knee Side Plank
  • Side Plank
  • Sit Ups
  • Arm Raises
  • Leg Raises
  • Superman
  • Loop band hip bridges
  • Squats (Chair or Wall)
  • Modified Knee Push Up
  • Regular Push Up
  • Seated Overhead Press
  • Bear Crawls

Wheelchair Fitness

Wheelchair fitness is a type of exercise that involves using your wheelchair for training. This can be done both in the gym or at home and can build whole-body strength through cardio, strength, and core movements.

Exercises may include:

  • Shoulder Retractions
  • Arm Raises
  • Side Twists with or without medicine ball
  • Chest Squeezes with or without medicine ball
  • Chest press with resistance band
  • Bicep Curls
  • Sitting Bicycle Crunches
  • Knee Lifts
  • Toe Lifts

Additional Types of Therapeutic Exercises, Explained

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists, or OTs, are trained to help adults with chronic illnesses and disabilities participate in activities that improve their everyday life, from living independently and effectively within their communities by being able to complete daily tasks like paying bills or cleaning their homes more efficiently. This type of therapy often focuses on movement and coordination. 

Physical therapy

Physical therapy routinely addresses issues such as impaired muscle strength and endurance, musculoskeletal imbalances, decreased range of motion, decreased flexibility, postural deviations, gait abnormalities, spasticity, and a number of other factors that can cause or contribute to impaired function and chronic pain.

When working with patients in pain, physical therapists will evaluate the individual not only for symptoms of pain but for the underlying causes. They assess the frequency, intensity, quality, and temporal and physical characteristics of the pain while evaluating the patient for other risk factors, such as dysfunctional movement patterns, sedentary lifestyle, psychological factors like PTSD or anxiety, and pertinent medical history that may be the cause of pain now and in the future.

Recreational Therapy

This type of therapy utilizes activity-based interventions to address the assessed needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabling conditions, as a means to support psychological and physical health, recovery and well-being. In short, recreational therapy works to use modified and prescribed leisure activities, in order to improve motor skills, social skills and cognitive functioning, while also benefitting emotional, spiritual, social and vocational well-being. Studies show that recreational therapy can help individuals combat depression and physical ailments, build coping skills, boost self-esteem and improve mood and quality of life.

Some common recreational therapy activities include individual or group counseling through strategic play, such as creative writing, yoga, crafts, dancing, drama, games or sports. These activities can take place within various settings, such as medical institutions, correctional facilities, community centers, and assisted living facilities.

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