Staying active with a disability

Keeping active can be a trial for those with a chronic illness, disability or a mobility impairment.


By Sara Vallejo


Fitting in fitness in today’s fast-paced world is difficult, but it can be even more of a trial with a chronic illness, disability or a mobility impairment. Whether a chronic illness leaves you with too little energy to make it through both the grocery store and the gym, or arthritis slows you down when you try to hit the treadmill or trails, staying active can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Running up against obstacles and limitations can be demoralizing and depressing and remind you that you are limited in the ways you can exercise. There is hope, though! While crossfit and triathlons may be out for you, there are ways to get and stay fit and enjoy the other benefits of exercise.

Start smart with a visit to your doctor and to a physical therapist.

Before jumping into the deep end, start the smart way. If you are recovering from an injury or have limited mobility for any reason, talk to a specialist. This may be an orthopedic surgeon, a physician who specializes in chronic illnesses, a cardiologist or even your optometrist for those with vision limitations.

While your general practitioner can probably guide you in the right direction, speaking with a specialist is your best bet. Specialists, especially those you’ve seen recently or see regularly, can help you better understand what physical activities you should and shouldn’t do. All athletes run the risk of injury, but if you already have a physical ailment limiting the exercise you can do, adding an additional injury could very well immobilize you or lead to more serious complications.

When visiting your doctor, ask for a referral to a physical therapist. While your physician may be deeply knowledgeable about internal medicine and the musculoskeletal system, physical therapists are trained to understand how the body moves. Therefore, it makes sense to see someone who understands how the body moves when you want to start moving your body more, right? A physical therapist will be able to assess your physical capabilities and—more importantly—observe you in motion to see what you may not be able to do or maybe shouldn’t do. Physical therapists help patients achieve greater mobility every day, so they know a lot of creative and specialized exercises that are especially helpful for patients with limited range of motion, mobility and similar.

As you progress in your new fitness regimen, be sure to check back in with your doctor and physical therapist from time to time so you can address what activities are safe and beneficial as you achieve greater fitness levels.

Find something that will get you moving and bring you joy.

If a chronic illness, injury or other physical limitation prevents you from just hopping on the elliptical trainer while stopping in at the gym after work, chances are the activities available to you will take more time. Be kind to yourself and accommodate more time for your active activities—but also make them account for more of your joy. It can be difficult to carve out extra time for something that feels like a chore, especially when you feel like your body isn’t cooperating. In that case, you absolutely must get creative and aim for fun, joy and wellbeing.

For some, this might mean gentle yoga sessions with an experienced teacher. It could be a rousing game of wheelchair basketball. And if you’re looking for something low impact and find lap swimming boring, maybe you’d enjoy an aqua Zumba class. As a bonus, no one will notice if you flub up the footwork if you’re up to your waist in water!

It could be that simple modifications can be made to allow you to do things that bring you joy. Specialized equipment, such as bicycle pedals and custom shoes, can open up a world of options. When you’re differently abled than most, it can seem like the fitness world is made for everyone but you—but you are not alone and there are options.

Once you find an activity you can enjoy safely and without pain, get the best equipment you can afford. Never skimp on running shoes and always get fit by a specialist if you can. If your new activity doesn’t require much equipment, treat yourself to a swimsuit or exercise clothes that make you feel fantastic.

Don’t go it alone.

Look into group fitness classes or fitness groups that are geared toward individuals with disabilities. Not only will you have fitness buddies who are at a similar speed and ability level, you’ll also have supervision to make your activities safer. Don’t underestimate the camaraderie of group fitness, especially if you’re attending a beginner or specialized class. Smashing through goals with others and raising others up can do an incredible job of lightening the spirit. And if you cha-cha the wrong way in a dance class? Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself and invite others to laugh with you. After all, laughter’s often the best medicine.

When possible, look for activities arranged by local and national associations for those with similar disabilities. These activities will usually be designed for your body and capabilities, with the added benefit of knowledgeable supervision.

If options are limited in your area, enlist a loving friend or family member to support you. If you’re limited to a slow stroll, invite someone to take a walk with you after dinner and don’t hesitate to set the pace that works best for you.

Start small, don’t despair and never give up.

Don’t expect to run a marathon or squat your bodyweight the first day you lace up your trainers. Like anyone starting a new fitness plan, start small and build up to greater duration or speed gradually. Listen to your body and don’t “push through the pain” to try to accomplish what others do. Seek to achieve your own personal best, not someone else’s. For dedicated athletes facing new limitations after an illness or injury, be kind to yourself. You may not be able to hit your old mile speed or get in 60 miles a day on your bike, and you may never be able to. Be gentle with yourself and aim for new bests. Celebrate every small victory, even if it’s just holding onto the side of the pool and kicking your feet for a few minutes. Celebrate every block you walk, no matter how slow. Celebrate every basket you make, every new dance step you learn and every weight you lift.

You may find that there are activities you just can’t do without pain or undue physical strain. These could even be activities you used to love. Take the time to accept what you aren’t able to do, then get creative and find a way to adapt.

Hiking in the hills may be out of the question if you suffer from lower body disabilities and limitations—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take a walk out in nature on a flat, paved path at the local park or arboretum. If it’s within what your doctor and physical therapist have indicated as safe and sensible, there’s no way to know but to try.

Try things you think you’d hate. You may find that yoga or Pilates connect you to your body in a really meaningful way. Those dance classes or group fitness classes you scoffed at? They could be the most fun you’ve ever had while working up a sweat. Just because there are activities you can’t do, doesn’t mean there aren’t any you can. It may be disheartening to come up against new limitations as you try to find a fitness activity that suits you which is why you mustn’t give up.

Living with a disability, mobility impairment, or chronic illness can already be quite a challenge and adding exercise into the mix can be especially difficult—and disheartening. Persevere, get sound medical opinions and find friends to sweat with. Find activities that bring you joy and pursue them. As many of my fellow Argonauts would agree, exercise isn’t just about burning fat and building muscle. It’s just plain good for you; mind, body and soul.

Found the activity that suits your body and lifestyle? Get in touch with us on social media and tell us all about it! We’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Sara Vallejo is a self-confessed happiness, health and self-development junkie from Chicago. She writes professionally in a business development and marketing capacity, and as a volunteer for a digital nonprofit. Miss Vallejo is a passionate mental and holistic health advocate who believes that good health is an ongoing journey best undertaken with supportive peers. Sara’s areas of expertise include nutrition, weight loss, women’s health, mental health and disability issues. She is returning to weight loss and fitness following orthopedic surgery and is excited to encourage and inspire fellow Azumio community members and readers to achieve the best health they can.

Main Photo Credit: Di Studio/; Second Photo Credit: Praisaeng/; Third Photo Credit: gpointstudio/; Fourth Photo Credit: sportpoint/; Fifth Photo Credit: Dejan Milic/