Increase Confidence at the Gym

Increase Confidence at the Gym
It’s the time of year when many people make a new year’s resolution to hit the gym.  For people with spinal cord injury (SCI), fitness is an important aspect of overall health, wellbeing, and autonomy, but many wheelchair users feel anxiety about working out at a gym. Many people experience ‘gym anxiety’ which can include feelings of judgment, insecurity, uncertainty, or a feeling that they ‘don’t belong’, but for people with SCI these feelings can be amplified. When you don’t know what to expect, anxiety and lack of confidence increase. The good news is there are many ways to increase your gym confidence, including research to find the right facility for you and focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t.  Note: it’s important to consult with your clinical team before beginning any new fitness regimen. 

How People with SCI Can Feel More Confident at the Gym

Here are some basic tips you can follow to increase your gym confidence: 
  • Talk to friends, family, and your care team for support and advice.
  • Focus on how you are improving rather than obstacles.
  • If crowds make you uncomfortable, go to the gym during slower times, like early in the morning or later in the evening.
  • Stay focused on why you want to go to the gym: to take care of yourself, be healthier, build strength, and feel good about yourself.
  • Set reasonable goals and track your progress to stay motivated.
  • Take time to research the right facility for you.

Tips for Finding the Right Gym

While it’s always possible to work out at home, going to a gym can bring emotional and social benefits, as well as access to equipment most people don’t have at home. A helpful first step is to research gyms near you that meet ADA Accessibility Standards. These standards require that “at least one of each type of exercise equipment or machine [has] clear floor space of at least 30 by 48 inches and [is] served by an accessible route. Clear floor space must be positioned to allow a person to transfer from a wheelchair or to use the equipment while seated in a wheelchair.” Investigate gyms in your area and meet with gym management to discuss your needs to determine if the facility is a good fit. Inquire as to whether gym assistants are available to help with transfers or if you will need to bring a workout buddy who can assist you (and help keep you motivated).  There are also adaptive fitness facilities made especially for wheelchair users. Do a little research to determine if there is one in your area. 

What to Know About Working Out with a Wheelchair

Every person with SCI has different fitness abilities and needs depending on the completeness and location of their injury. Consult with your care team about gym exercises that are safe and effective for you.  Wheelchair users do not need to feel that their injury prevents them from working out. For people with very limited mobility, range of motion exercises are a great way to maintain aerobic health and build strength.  Wheelchair yoga and Tai Chi are also great for building flexibility and strength.  Your exercise program should include four essential components: 
  • Strength training
  • Cardiovascular conditioning
  • Flexibility 
  • Respiratory endurance

Strength Training

Gym sessions with weight training are key to increasing muscle tone and strength. Strong muscles help regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and maintain a healthy weight.  People who use manual wheelchairs engage their chest and shoulder muscles frequently, which can cause muscle imbalance and make them more prone to injury. To counterbalance this it’s important to focus on building up back muscles. Any exercise that involves a pulling motion helps to increase back muscle tone and strength. Here are some basic guidelines to follow for strength and resistance training:
  • Always start with a low weight
  • Increase sets, reps, intensity, and number of sessions per week slowly to avoid injury
  • Always stretch first
  • Alternate days to rest muscles
  • Avoid anything painful - if you feel any pain, stop
Gym equipment that helps with strength training include: 
  • Kettlebells
  • Bands/elastics
  • Free weights
  • Wall weights

Cardiovascular Conditioning

Aerobic conditioning brings increased oxygen to muscles as it increases your heart and breathing rate. It’s not as important what aerobic exercise you do as long as it is increasing your heart and breathing rate (to a safe level).  Regular aerobic exercise improves circulation, maintains healthy heart and lung function, reduces weight gain, and combats depression and anxiety. Examples of cardiovascular conditioning for people with SCI include: 
  • Seated aerobics
  • Swimming
  • Overhead punching
  • Adaptive sports, like basketball, rugby, tennis, and more
  • Rowing

Stretching and Flexibility

Stretching exercises are important as they allow you to maintain flexibility. This helps make daily activities - like bathing and dressing - easier and promotes healthy balance and posture.  Passive (assisted) or active upper and lower body stretches are important, especially in the shoulder, upper arms, neck, hip, knee, and ankle.  Stretching exercises should be done daily and should be gentle and avoid any sudden or jarring movements.

Respiratory Endurance

SCI can cause respiratory muscles to weaken, depending on the completeness and level of injury. Respiratory exercises help improve breathing and increase oxygen levels in the body and brain.  Some examples of respiratory exercises for muscle training include: 
  • Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, then slowly exhale
  • Take a fast deep breath and then immediately push the air out as quickly as you can. 
  • Take a deep breath and then exhale while counting as long and as fast as you can.
  • Take a deep breath and hold it, then take another breath and hold it, then take one more breath before slowly exhaling. 

Fitness Resolutions for the New Year

The new year brings an opportunity to focus on overall wellness, including fitness. New year's resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep, so instead of viewing fitness as a resolution, weave it into your lifestyle and avoid overdoing it at the start to avoid burnout.  Make your new year’s resolution to find the right gym for you, one that makes you feel comfortable and has the right resources for your particular needs. Then it’s simply a matter of taking the leap and making fitness a regular part of your daily routine. Working out becomes its own reward, as your body grows stronger, you start to see results, and your confidence grows.

Join the Thrive Community!

We’ve gathered a number of inspiring individuals with disabilities in our very own Thrive Community! The Thrive Community Facebook Group is a private space for any person with a disability, as well as caregivers and healthcare providers that touch their lives. Our purpose is to provide a safe, educational space for group members to ask every question, connect with their peers, and empower each other through communication and connection. Our conversations are led by incredible individuals who themselves are living and thriving. For more enlightening resources, information, and discussion, join the Enemeez® Thrive Community today!   Disclaimer: The material contained is for reference purposes only. Quest Healthcare, A Division of Quest Products, LLC, does not assume responsibility for patient care. Consult a physician prior to use. Copyright 2021 Quest Healthcare, A Division of Quest Products, LLC.   Sources: 
  1. Exercising From A Wheelchair: Going To The Gym (
  2. Chapter 10: Sports Facilities (
  3. Spinal Cord Injury Range of Motion Exercises | SCI Progress
  4. The Importance of Fitness Following a Spinal Cord Injury - MotleyHealth®
  5. Exercise and Spinal Cord Injury (
  6. LTC Residents in Wheelchairs Can – and Should – Exercise - Caring for the Ages