Staying fit and active with a disability

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Remaining active is important for everyone, including those who have a disability.

Key points:

  • Australians of all ages, including people with disability, are encouraged to be active to stay healthy
  • Doing some physical activity is better than doing none
  • Before starting any new exercise routines or activities, it is advised that you consult a doctor for advice

Taking care of your health through exercise and being active can have benefits on conditions you may experience through your disability, as well as your social and mental wellbeing.

Meeting the guidelines

Australians of all ages, including people with disability, are encouraged to be active to stay healthy. However, statistics show that people with disability do not get enough physical activity compared to those without disability.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

  • 65 percent of adults with a disability aged 18 – 64 do not do enough physical activity, compared with 48 percent of people without a disability
  • 83 percent of older adults with a disability (aged 65 and over) do not do enough physical activity, compared with 62 percent of older people without a disability

According to the Department of Health the current recommended activity guidelines for all Australians, including people with disability, are:

  • Adults (aged 16-64) should do two and a half to five hours of moderate-intensity physical activity or one hour and 15 minutes to two and a half hours of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both moderate and vigorous activities each week
  • Older people should do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days

However, some people with disability may face barriers accessing or undertaking exercise and activity.

Some of those barriers can relate to the norms of the environment they are in and not being a part of that norm.

This is supported, particularly in gym environments, by research published in the Disability and Rehabilitation journal.

The study revealed that some settings, like the gym, had “potential” for people with disability but that “more must be done to foster an inclusive atmosphere in this space”.

This doesn’t mean that you have to hit the gym to adopt a more active lifestyle. Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing little bits here and there, and gradually build up to the recommended amount for your age.

Sport in Australia has become more inclusive over the years, with many community organisations providing games – like football or cricket – that are accessible to everyone.

There are also adaptive sports available that cater towards people with different mobility needs and abilities. You can learn more about this in our article, ‘What are my adaptive sport options?

Why is exercise important?

Twenty-four percent of adults with a disability experience very good or excellent health, compared with 65 percent without a disability.

Exercise offers a lot of benefits, not just to your body but for your mind as well.

Being active can:

  • Help stamina and muscle strength
  • Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improve mood
  • Promote general feelings of wellbeing
  • Decrease the risk of or prevent secondary health conditions such as heart disease, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity

If you’re living with disability, exercise can have additional benefits in day-to-day life, such as:

  • Assisting with limiting or reducing muscle wastage due to difficulty with moving certain parts of the body
  • Improving any imbalance between overused and underused muscle groups
  • Improving balance problems caused by weak muscles, which can help with doing everyday movements
  • Helping to control joint swelling and pain

If you want to be involved in exercise or sport, you can talk to local community groups or gyms about sport or training options available, or contact your disability support provider about how they can support you with this new personal goal.

What types of activities should I do?

There are four types of activity that should be part of regular exercise to keep you healthy:

  • Moderate activities, like brisk walking which is good for your heart, lungs and blood vessels
  • Strength activities, which can include weight training and are good to help maintain bone strength
  • Flexibility activities, such as Pilates are good to help you move more easily
  • Balancing activities, which can include yoga, are good to improve balance and help prevent falls

It is recommended that you try to include at least one activity from each group when exercising.

There are also a number of different workout routines that you can undertake, such as:

  • Cardio: Any exercises that get your heart rate up are considered cardio. Depending on your disability you may be able to run or jog or even use some of the machines at the gym, like the elliptical or a stationary bike.
  • Strength: If you are able, you can use free weights and resistance bands to help you build strength. Make sure you increase the weight or resistance gradually. You may even be able to make use of some of the gym machines to build lower and upper body strength.
  • Isometric: Isometric exercises help maintain muscle strength and can help prevent further muscle deterioration. These exercises require you to push against immovable objects or another body part without changing the muscle length or moving the joint.
  • Wheelchair: These exercises are done in your chair. They can help improve posture, back pain and alleviate body sores. You can do cardio and flexibility exercises while in a wheelchair.

It can be ideal to align your personal goals, abilities and health needs with the workouts and exercise routines you undertake.

What activities and exercises could I try?

There are a number of exercises that might be right for you depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Some activities that you may be able to try include:

  • Stretching
  • Weight training
  • Swimming
  • Building activity into your every day by getting off one bus stop early, parking further away or going for a walk at lunchtime
  • Adaptive sports, finding a sport based on your disability and searching local clubs near you for any inclusive or adaptive options
  • Disability accessible gyms and fitness centres

You may need to work with a Personal Trainer or General Practitioner (GP) to find the right exercise plan for you.

Tips for exercising with a disability

Before starting any exercise plan talk to your GP or a Personal Trainer to make sure the plan is right for you and suits your abilities. You don’t want to be injuring yourself because your exercise routine isn’t the best fit for you.

Some tips for getting the most out of exercise and activity, include:

  • Don’t focus on your lack of mobility or health issues. Instead of worrying about the activities you can’t do or enjoy, concentrate on finding activities that you can enjoy and do.
  • Stop exercising if you experience any pain, discomfort, nausea, chest pain, or shortness of breath. Listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury.
  • Find someone to train with, as having a partner to train with or do an activity with can motivate you.
  • Be proud when you make the effort to exercise. Some days can be harder than others when it comes to getting the motivation to go to the gym.
  • Be creative. Depending on the type of disability you have, you may need to be creative in the type of exercises or activities that you do.

If you are looking for expert assistance, there are a number of Personal Trainers registered as service providers through the NDIS. You can contact your support coordinator to find out if you are eligible for funding support.

Related content:

Recreation, sport and the NDIS
What are my adaptive sport options?
Representing Australia in wheelchair basketball
(Wheel)chair exercises