Make Working Out Work

Don't let physical limitations keep you from being active

People use plenty of excuses to avoid exercise. From “I don’t have time” to “I’m too tired,” we’ve heard them all. But you, you have a legitimate reason. You have a physical limitation—a disability, a chronic health condition or an injury—that makes working out impossible!

Not so fast. While it may be a challenge to exercise with physical limitations—whether permanent or temporary—you can still do it. And you absolutely should.

“Being active is beneficial for all Americans, and even more so for peo- ple with chronic health conditions, to maintain health and function,” says Amy Rauworth, associate director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability. “The important thing to remember is to look at the ability and not the limit.”

Of course, the limits can sometimes be difficult to get past. Let’s explore some of the barriers you might encoun- ter when working out and ways to break through them.

Barrier: You're worried exercise will aggravate your condition.

What to do to break through: Talk to your doctor. “People have that fear that they’re going to do too much or that they can’t be physically active,” Rauworth says. “But they can. They just need to talk to their doctor first. Most of the time, the doctor will say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Sometimes the doctor will say, ‘Let’s run a couple of tests first.’”

Barrier: You don't know where to start.

What to do to break through: Your doctor has given his or her blessing to be active. But how should you go about it? Rauworth recommends walking, if you’re able. “Walking is always a great way to start,” she says. “It’s inexpensive, and if you can do it with a friend, it makes the time pass quicker." Rauworth suggests mapping out a route ahead of time to identify places to sit, use the bathroom or do whatever your health condition might require. If you're interested in strength training or functional exercises that simultaneously improve strength, endurance, balance and agility, consider working with a trainer in the beginning to learn proper form and get tips. "Choose the right level of personal trainer that motivates you and understands your health conditions," Rauworth says. 

Barrier: You're not sure whether facilities willbe accessible.

What to do to break through: Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in effect for more than a quarter century, not all recreational facilities make it easy for people with disabilities to get around. If you’re thinking of joining a gym, call ahead or schedule a tour to find out whether it will meet your needs. Does it have the equipment you require? Is it accessible? Can you get around in the changing areas? If not, ask for what you need. You might not get it in the time frame you require, but it could mean breaking down a barrier for someone else down the line.

“The more you go out there and ask for access, the more people will benefit,” Rauworth says. “If we create an environ- ment accessible by all, we’re all going to be more active.”

Barrier: You lack motivation.

What to do to break through: To stick with an exercise regimen, it shouldn’t feel like exercise. “Find the types of things you like,” Rauworth says. “If you’re not going to like riding a stationary bike in your basement, don’t do that.” Instead, go for a bike ride outside, take a belly dancing class or sign up for tai chi in the park.

Barrier: You fear failure.

What to do to break through: Start slow and work your way up. Set realistic goals and adjust as needed on a monthly, weekly or daily basis. Remember that any move in the right direction is a good thing. And if your limitation is new, give yourself time to adjust your abilities. "Recognize that you won't be able to do the exact same exercise routine you did before," Rauworth says. "Do what you feel is comfortable for that day, and remember every day is a new day."

Accesible Activities

Physical limitations may make certain activities difficult. But there are plenty of alternative options that are generally considered to be safe (with your doctor’s approval, of course). Becky Thompson, PT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with Gwinnett Medical Center, offers a few options to consider.

  • Walking. It’s cheap, it can be done anywhere and it’s something you already know how to do. To get aerobic benefits, walk at a pace that gets your heart rate up but still allows you to carry on a conversation.
  • Water aerobics. With low or no impact, swimming and water activities are especially good for people with orthopedic issues.
  • Yoga. Easily adaptable to every fitness level, yoga is ideal for all. People with balance or mobility issues can try chair yoga or concentrate on floor positions while still building strength and endurance.

Get Help Staying Active As You Age