Exercise Adaptations for Impaired Physical Mobility

Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
Coach Alice doing dips
Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
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Impaired physical mobility may refer to people with back issues, those recovering from ankle or knee injuries, or a wide range of other potential issues that limit your ability to move freely. Physical mobility impairment can affect people of all ages, and often has physical and mental effects on the person's relationship to exercise.

At 8fit, we don't think impaired physical mobility should exclude you from proactively moving toward your health and fitness goals. Every day is an opportunity to realize those goals, whether that is dedicating 10 minutes a day to your fitness, or finding a community of people ready to support you however they can. Subscribe to 8fit Pro app if you would like the presence of an encouraging, positive health and fitness guide in your pocket, and try these mobility exercises for guidance and motivation.

Read on if you're ready to kick fear or self-consciousness to the curb, and focus on what your amazing body can do.

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What exercises can I do with impaired physical mobility?

The specific answer to that question is different for each person. The common denominator, however, is that you can do something every day that moves you forward. Fitness can remain a positive, grounding part of your weekly routine.

You may have some expectation-adjusting to do if your physical impairment is recent or if you have goals outside the realm of what your body can achieve. Listen to your body, and be kind to yourself. Remember, it's not about achieving the most extreme goals you can manage, but rather, setting realistic, mindful goals for yourself. There are a few things we want you to be aware of before, during, and after integrating these exercise adaptions and mobility exercises into your routine.

Mobility exercises: Before, during and after

Before:

  • Talk to a doctor. Discuss your mobility, your goals, and how you want to get you there. You should always seek medical advice before introducing any significant changes to your fitness routine.

  • Always warm up. Stretching is always recommended before any intensive exercise, especially when you've been unable to exercise as frequently as you would like to. Research suggests dynamic stretching, where stretches are repeated and done quickly, is highly effective for joint and muscle activation and protection in repetitive exercise such as cycling.

  • Get in the right mindset. Remember to take it slow and easy. It's about the process, not ticking it off the to-do list. You don't need to reach your end goal straight away.

During:

  • Listen to your body. Cease any exercise if it causes you to feel pain or any adverse effects.

  • Be mindful. Accept where your body is at and don't try to force anything, because that could be dangerous. However, don't let fear get in the way either, or fall into the comparison trap. If you feel bogged down constantly comparing yourself to others online, this is a great article about feeling comfortable in your own skin and being grateful for your body.

  • A little goes a long way. Don't overdo it, as this study shows that just eight weeks of short training and stretching exercises improves joint mobility and walking functionality in elderly women.

After:

  • Cool down. We can't overstate the importance of stretching. Research shows that even 30 minutes a day of passive stretching can improve walking ability and movement in just four weeks. Check out this this guided post-workout stretch to get a better idea of stretches to do, and read ahead for adaptions for impaired physical mobility.

  • Check in with yourself. How do you feel about your mobility during your exercise today? How does it feel, physically and mentally, to be at this point in your fitness journey?

  • Correct form over speed. If you are doing resistance or HIIT at home, consider consulting an expert to make sure you are doing the exercises properly and in perfect form to ensure safety as well as the best possible outcomes for your body and mind.

The three best mobility exercises:

HIIT

summer-hiit-outdoor-workout alice

High intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, involves exercise done at high intensity, alternating with shorter, less intensive exercise. This kind of exercise typically lasts between ten minutes to one hour overall. We recommend that a fully mobile and healthy person do HIIT around three to four times a week, and not more, especially for newcomers. Don't feel you have to exhaust your body with a HIIT workout the first time you try it or any other mobility exercise on this list.

Don't let embarrassment keep you from exploring all your options, and finding something that could work for you. Ask at your local gym or other nearby gyms about their options for physical disability or impairment. You may be surprised to find they have taken steps to ensure a more inclusive gym experience, with equipment and personal trainers adapted for people of all abilities to workout there.

For those with joint-related issues, investigate local pools or swimming clubs. Many will have programs of water aerobics or swimming for people with impaired physical mobility, as exercising in the water takes a lot of pressure off your joints.

Swap out traditional HIIT moves with ones that work for you. Work out the parts of your body that aren't as limited by trying out this chair HIIT workout for people with joint issues or injuries. Follow the whole HIIT mobility exercise, or swap in other moves depending on your ability.

Adaptations:

  • Tricep dips: If you have a hip joint injury, focus on your upper body. Face away from your chair, putting your hands on the edge of your chair and lowering yourself down in a reverse push-up, 15 to 20 times in a row.

  • Plank on your chair: Face your chair and put either your hands or your elbows onto the seat, holding for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or however long is comfortable.

  • Chair push-ups: If you are able, do 15 to 20 chair push-ups, moving from chair plank position into push-up position and back.

  • Stand and sit up to 20 times, without ever completely putting your weight back into the chair. This can be adapted to be harder or easier depending on your ability, by holding weights or weighted balls (or a big book if push comes to shove).

  • Leg lifts: Sit with a straight back on your chair, and support yourself via arm rests. Lift your legs, bent or straight, as high as you can, and rest. Repeat this up to 20 times, engaging your core and keeping your neck straight.

  • Chair side lunges: Sit in a chair and bend your left leg with your foot on the floor. Stretch your right leg out straight to the side, until it looks like you are doing a side lunge sitting down. Reach your right hand to the floor or as far down as you can go, and stick your left arm up straight, as high as you can go. Repeat this on the other side, and alternate legs until you're tired, or up to 20 times.

Yoga/ Tai Chi

yoga childs pose

We could talk all day just about yoga for people with limited physical mobility. There are so many different types of yoga out there, that there's something for everyone. Yoga is great for strength and flexibility, and is a more mindful, introspective form of mobility exercise out there.

Yoga and Tai Chi both improve your range of motion, and one study even found that implementing a routine combining Tai Chi and walking improved the lower body's physical performance and reduced the risk of falls in older people with limited mobility. Find Tai Chi resources at your local park or neighbourhood recreation centre.

We've even put together this chair sun salutation routine, which can be adapted to last as short or long a time as you like, and is a great way to stay mindful and grounded on your fitness journey.

Chair sun salutation

  1. Start on a chair with your feet hips width apart, with your knees aligned directly over your ankles (avoid splaying knees out).

  2. Keeping your head in a neutral position, roll your shoulders back and relax them to ensure proper posture. Imagine a thread pulling you from the crown of your head upwards; no slouching.

  3. Inhale and raise your arms up over your head, with your shoulders pulled away from your ears. Touch your palms and exhale as you lower your hands to your chest. Repeat this circular motion up to 10 times to warm up your arms and create a rhythm to your breathing.

  4. Next, press your feet into the floor, place your hands on your knees and exhale as you lean forward into a forward bend over your knees. Keep your spine straight and go as low as you can without any discomfort.

  5. Slowly walk your hands down to the floor or keep them on your knees. Let your head hang forward if it's comfortable. Inhale and come up and repeat from the beginning.

  6. Repeat this progression a few times or as many times as you feel comfortable doing.

Bodyweight training

two women running up stairs outdoors

A lot of HIIT exercises use your own weight as training, such as tricep dips or planks. But walking also uses your own weight to burn calories and tone muscle, as does climbing stairs.

That doesn't mean you have to do these mobility exercises quickly to be effective. It can be frustrating not being able to move as fast as you are used to. Be kind to your body, it supports you and does the best it can, and you can reward it by alternating gentle resistance training with the HIIT and Yoga exercises listed above. Integrate bodyweight training exercises into your weekly fitness routine or add ones that make you feel good, such as gentle dancing, a walk in the local park, or taking the stairs over the lift at your next appointment. It all adds up.

Impaired physical mobility: In conclusion

Always seek a professional's help, especially if you have impaired physical mobility issues that preclude you from some of the things we discussed here, or if you don't think these will get you where you need to go. It's brave to seek health and fitness advice at any stage of your life, with any degree of mobility impairment, so never forget you've taken the hardest step just by starting.

When we integrate these adaptions into our exercise regimen, it can soon become evident that motivation, rather than ability, holds us back the most. Subscribe to the 8fit Pro app to benefit from expert training where exercises can be adapted to any fitness level or ability. Be motivated not by frustration with your body but rather by a love for your health and wellbeing. Our bodies can achieve a lot when we make choices that work for us.

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