November 11, 2016

Exercise Options for People with Limited Mobility

Which images come to mind when you hear the word “exercise?”

Perhaps you’re jogging on your favorite lakeshore path, or finding your Warrior 2 on your yoga mat. Or maybe you’re throwing a right cross as part of a high-energy, calorie-burning Piloxing class at your local gym.

But what if you have a bad knee or ankle that throbs after the first few steps of your run? Or you suffer from fibromyalgia and have difficulty working through muscle pain and fatigue for an extended workout?

Or what if you’re just a bit older and your muscles and tissues aren’t as supple and resilient as they used to be?

Exercising is tough enough. But people with limited mobility or chronic pain face particularly pronounced challenges when trying to incorporate fitness and movement in their lives. Their bodies won’t allow them to embark upon that five-mile run or that 60-minute yoga class.

But UW Health Fitness Center exercise specialist Lisa Milbrandt insists they still have fitness options, because you don’t have to work out for an hour to reap the benefits of physical activity.

For people with limited mobility, the first step toward improved fitness might be as easy as getting up out of their chair. But always remember to check with your doctor first on the level and types of activities best for you.

Build Slowly

“Get up and move a little bit throughout the day,” she says. “Walk down the hall and back. Even though it doesn't sound like much, if it's more than you're doing, your body will adapt and you will be able to add a little more and a little more each week.”

Starting Your Exercise Routine

1. Walk a few steps more than you usually do. Take one extra trip to the kitchen for a glass of water each day.

2. Buy an exercise band. They cost about 10 bucks, and you can start your resistance training with these three, simple exercises: biceps curls, leg presses and rows.

3. Call your senior center or community rec centers. They often have group exercise options, and if you don’t think you can handle the entire class, talk to the instructor and tell him or her that you’re new to the class and would like to participate in the first 10 or 15 minutes of class and then duck out the back.

4. Browse YouTube.  A “exercises for people with limited mobility” search generated more than 3,000 results. Find the one you like.

Milbrandt says that, during this initial foray, the amount of dedicated movement varies according to each person’s abilities. But the important thing is to do something, whether it’s marching in place or moving your arms and legs a little bit, and gradually increasing the movement as your body permits.

“The more you move around, the more you'll be able to move around,” Milbrandt says.

She calls this incremental building “microslicing,” and it’s based on the SAID principle, which states the body is designed to adapt specifically to the demands you impose.

“If walking is challenging for you, and you walk four steps one way and four steps back this week, maybe next week you’ll do five," she says. "When your body understands how to do it, it becomes easier, and you might be ready to add.”

Hit the Pool

But what types of exercises are appropriate for people with mobility limitations? Milbrandt says swimming pools are great, as movement in water decreases the amount of weight the body has to support during exercise, increases range-of-motion and decreases anxiety associated with falls.

Plus, it’s fun.

“There is an inherent freedom when you get in the water,” Milbrandt says, adding that patient groups with whom she has worked in the past applied the book club social dynamic to group swimming pool activities. “It becomes a social outing and a motivational piece.”

And swimming pool access doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to pay for a health club membership.

Milbrandt says many towns have hotels that charge only per-visit fees for use of their pools, and some high schools do the same.

Use Exercise Bands and Snow Shoes

Band exercises are often a viable alternative to hand weights for people with limited mobility, Milbrandt says, and for people who have difficulty standing for long stretches, many band-based upper-body movements can be done while sitting in a chair.

Outdoor enthusiasts who live in sub-optimal climates (looking at you, Wisconsin) may feel stranded during the snowy winter months. Slippery sidewalks don’t mix very well with mobility limitations, which often cause balance issues. But Milbrandt even has an exercise suggestion for those who want to get outside during the winter.

“Snowshoeing is great because it’s stable. You have bigger feet,” she says. “You can usually find a bike path or golf course with a flat surface, and can use walking sticks or ski poles.”

Once you find the exercise that suits you, Milbrandt offers one caution. Don’t overdo it.

“Don't stack too many exercises in a row,” she says. “If anything, underdo it the first few times. Literally start with two or three exercises, and mix them throughout the day. You're trying to get low-level stimulus that your body can adapt to.”

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