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Exercising With Limited Mobility


Updated November 28, 2007

Having limited mobility does not have to mean exercise is out of the question. For the person with diabetes, able-bodied or not, exercise is essential.

Exercise has many benefits. It can help keep weight down and build muscle. It can strengthen bones and improve circulation. Exercise can also help:

  • Stabilize blood sugar levels
  • Increase insulin sensitivity
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Slow the progression of neuropathy (nerve disease)
Diabetes can affect many body parts and systems, which is why it is important for people with diabetes to inform their doctors when they are beginning new exercise programs. Modifications or adaptations may be necessary to accommodate the abilities of a person with limited mobility.

ADA Exercise Recommendations

For a person with limited mobility caused by neuropathy, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends the following activities:
  • Swimming
  • Bicycling
  • Rowing
  • Chair exercises
  • Arm exercises
  • Other non-weight-bearing exercise, such as yoga or tai chi
Remember to practice proper foot care during exercise. An air or silica gel midsole inside shoes will provide protection. Polyester or cotton-polyester socks will help keep feet dry.

Tips for Those With Limited Mobility

Many types of special equipment and exercise videos are available for the person with limited mobility who chooses or needs to use these aids as part of an exercise routine. Some videos demonstrate chair exercises; others illustrate practices such as yoga or tai chi. The Web site of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability provides a list of exercise videos and gives a brief explanation of each one.

Jim Lubin, a quadriplegic, has a comprehensive list of resources at his Web site, including links to makers of exercise equipment. Such equipment may be helpful for people recovering from strokes or with limited mobility for other reasons.

Some gyms are designed for people with limited mobility. Many health clubs provide special accommodations. Available facilities and programs can be located by talking to managers of local clubs or doing a Google search for nearby "adaptive fitness gyms."

Mobility limitations might sometimes cause embarrassment, especially in gym environments. Support and connection with people in similar circumstances can be found through resources like the BBC's Ouch! magazine. The Ouch! website features a lively question-and-answer message board.

Warming Up Before Exercise

No matter the exercises or level of ability, a warm-up period is essential. Even those with extremely limited mobility can do slow and gentle range-of-motion exercises with their unrestricted body parts. Their doctors can demonstrate these exercises.

Here's an example of a good warm-up routine. Each of the following exercises should be repeated six to 10 times. Those who are unable to stand should talk to their doctors about accommodations.

  • Neck rolls: Tuck chin into chest and roll chin from side to side by trying to touch ear to shoulder. Can be done standing or sitting.
  • Shoulder circles: Stand with feet apart. Raise right shoulder toward right ear; lower shoulder back down in a smooth motion. Repeat on the other side.
  • Overhead arm swings: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep back straight and knees slightly bent. Swing both arms up overhead, then back down past hips.
  • Crossover arm swings: Stand as for overhead arm swings. Swing both arms out to side at about shoulder height and then across chest.
  • Side bends: Stand as in overhead arm swings. Rest hands on hips. Lift torso up and bend smoothly to left, then back up straight, then to the right. Try to keep a smooth slow rhythm and spread out while bending to the side. Inhale while returning to the upright position.


"Having Limited Mobility Does Not Mean You Can't Exercise." Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network. Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network. 27 Sep 2007 <http://www.lvh.org/lvh/Your_LVH|1196>.

Rowett, D. "Exercise Concerns for People with Diabetic Neuropathy." Yahoo! Health. 29 Sep 2004. Yahoo! Health. 27 Sep 2007 <http://health.yahoo.com/ency/healthwise/tf4724>.

"Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes." Diabetes.org. 2004. American Diabetes Association. 9 Sep 2007. <http://care.diabetesjournals.org/cgi/content/full/diacare;27/suppl_1/s58>.

Balducci, S., G. Iacobellis, L. Parisi, N. Di Biase, E. Calandriello, F. Leonetti, and F. Fallucca. "Exercise Training Can Modify the Natural History of Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy." (2006). Journal of Diabetes Complications 20:216-223.

"Warm Up Exercises." Tansun. (2006) Kinetix. 9 Sep 2007 < http://www.exercisechairs.com/warm-up.htm >.

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