If you have not been physically active for a while, plan to start your activity at a low intensity and to do it for short periods. As your body adapts to being more active, you can increase both the intensity and the time you spend being active.
At-home fitness programs
For many people, home is the most comfortable place to begin exercising. Fortunately, most public libraries have instructional books, CDs, and DVDs that teach aerobics, yoga, kickboxing, and other sports. Look for ”basic” or “beginner” versions to get started.
A resource with a specific audience in mind is Real Fitness for Real Women by Rochelle Rice (Grand Central Publishing, 2001). This book contains an exercise program that is tailored, physically and psychologically, to plus-size women. It outlines 25 different exercises designed to achieve physical and mental well-being — not necessarily weight loss — while emphasizing that improving one’s fitness to feel better is possible at any weight.
Yoga is rigorous, yet relaxing; it works all muscles, increases strength and flexibility, and can improve circulation and blood pressure. It can also be taken up at any skill level and in any place, including a bed or wheelchair. Bed Top Yoga (Yoga Enterprises, Inc.), a DVD by certified Kripalu and Bikram instructor Carol Dickman, guides users through a series of breathing exercises, simple stretches, and basic yoga postures, followed by relaxation exercises — all designed to be done lying on one’s back.
“I believe that whatever you want to change in your life, yoga can help you do it,” says Dickman, who has spoken to numerous diabetes groups. “My programs give people who might feel they have little control over their illness an opportunity to contribute to their well-being; the practice of yoga helps support a healthy lifestyle.”
Swimming is a great low-impact exercise and among the most popular of Paralympic sports. It’s easy to do on your own, or, if you’d like more structure and a chance to meet others, as a participant in a masters swim club (a program for adults of all ability levels).
But one need not swim to make use of a pool; many health clubs, YMCAs, and community recreation centers offer Aquacise classes, in which participants perform aerobic exercises in the pool. Because the water helps to support your weight, exercising in water can reduce the stress on your feet and joints. At the same time, water provides resistance, which helps to strengthen muscles. Simply walking in the water can provide a workout that improves mobility, gait, and balance — all of which are especially vital for seniors.
For people with very limited mobility, wheelchair lifts can be found in most community and university pools.
Stationary bikes and handcycles
Biking works some of the body’s largest muscles, so it can burn a lot of calories (depending on how long and how intensively you pedal). Stationary bikes have the advantages of requiring less balance than a regular bicycle and of allowing the user to stop at any time, with no worries about traffic. They are also usable when it’s raining, snowing, or too hot to exercise outdoors. Putting a stationary bike in front of a TV is a great way to encourage movement during a normally sedentary activity.
For people who cannot use their legs, handcycles can provide a great upper-body workout. (Even some people who can use their legs like to use a stationary handcycle to build upper-body strength.) Pedaling a handcycle can be made less monotonous with the GameCycle, a device that combines a handcycle with video-game capabilities. Developed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, it lets users play Nintendo GameCube racing games while they exercise. The arm cranks control speed and steering, and since both arms must work in unison, its maker (Three Rivers Holdings) claims that it offers therapeutic benefits such as improving strength asymmetries, muscle coordination, hand–eye coordination, and balance. An Americans With Disabilities Act tax credit for small businesses can cut the GameCycle’s $5400 price tag in half. (Your gym or health club may be more willing to buy one if the management is aware of this.)