weighing scale, fruits, weights

Healthy Weight for Wheelchair Users

For wheelchair users, losing weight and keeping that weight off can often prove difficult as wheelchair users typically burn less calories through exercise compared to non-disabled persons. Since most wheelchair users have to transfer in and out of cars, beds, and bathtubs, being overweight can be a hinderance on daily activities for those with physical disabilities and even life threatening.

Finding ways to exercise if and when possible surely helps if it is an option, but since that isn’t always the case, maintaining a good diet vitally important. Weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise, so even if you don’t do in-chair exercises, you can lose weight if you pay attention to your diet.

Your Healthy Body Weight

Remember that a healthy weight will look different for everybody. Healthy bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. So long as you’re eating in a way that helps you to feel your best, and fuel you to move your body in ways you enjoy, rest assured that your body will settle at its preferred weight. Rather than having a target weight, or even going by the body mass index (which can be skewed for a wheelchair user), focusing on your ideal lifestyle rather than ideal weight can help to address many physical and mental health conditions at the same time.

Health at Every Size (HAES)

Health at Every Size is an approach to public health that seeks to de-emphasize weight loss as a health goal, and reduce stigma towards people who are overweight or obese. As a wheelchair user, you may consider finding a practitioner or community weight management service based on a HAES approach, which will have less to do with how many calories you burn a day or a strict diet plan, and more to do with addressing the full picture of health.

The HAES principals are:

  1. Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
  2. Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
  3. Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
  4. Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
  5. Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.

Wheelchair Users and Weight Loss

a senior woman cooking breakfast by herself

Millions of Americans, young and old, struggle to lose weight. Weight loss is a personal journey that generally requires discipline in the fields of both nutrition and exercise.

Compared to other adults, people in wheelchairs have an extra challenge, since they cannot move as much of their body as most people can. Limited body movement decreases the options that a person has in terms of exercise and can decrease motivation as well.

A wheelchair user can still lose weight with a balanced diet and achieve a healthy body weight. To lose weight, one must burn more calories than they consume. Since wheelchair users tend to burn fewer calories, the typical advice is to eat fewer calories, especially if they can’t perform the exercises needed to burn more calories.

As it can be more difficult for wheelchair users to get moving, it’s important to find an exercise that welcomes wheelchair users, such as adapted weight machines, wheelchair sports, or rowing machines adapted for those with limited mobility. This type of activity helps less-abled people to avoid serious health conditions and helps them to maintain rather than lose muscle. A balanced diet helps wheelchair users to fuel activities they enjoy and therefore maintain a healthy body weight.

Weight Gain in a Wheelchair

If you are new to using a wheelchair, you may be eating as you did before, but gaining weight as a result of using less energy through physical activity. It can be much more difficult for wheelchair users to lose weight – and very easy to gain.

According to the CDC, individuals “with mobility limitations and intellectual or learning disabilities” are far more likely to be overweight, with rates of obesity for disabled adults and children 58 percent and 38 percent higher than for their able-bodied counterparts, respectively.

Not having the ability to use your leg muscles and abdominal muscles reduces the number of calories needed to maintain a healthy weight. Certain medications keep weight on, pain often deters physical activity, and cooking when impaired can be a real struggle, making it harder to maintain a healthy diet.

overweight woman sitting on her wheelchair

A gym with adaptive equipment might not be available in your community, and getting to the store to buy healthy food can sometimes be a challenge, making an overall healthy lifestyle more difficult to achieve. 

There’s a greater risk for shoulder and upper-body injury for those with limited mobility when overweight, as you’re putting more strain on the body. Ultimately, the harder you’re forced push your physical limitations, the less you’ll feel like moving, and that makes weight loss for wheelchair users much more difficult.

There is also the issue of becoming too large to fit in your wheelchair. People who use wheelchairs for mobility may have to purchase a larger/reinforced “heavy duty” wheelchair, which can quickly become costly. 


Losing Weight in a Wheel Chair

For wheelchair users, it’s common to need fewer calories than the typically stated guideline amounts. This is partly because wheelchair users tend not to use the large leg muscles and having less muscle means fewer calories are needed to maintain a healthy weight.

A general practitioner or dietitian can work with you to establish better eating habits, a healthier lifestyle, and even help you to work out your daily calorie needs for proper nutrition.

You may prefer to have the support of a community weight management or physical health service. Ask your general practitioner if there is one available near you.

an old man doing exercises on his wheelchair

It’s important to eat a balanced diet because when you have a lower calorie intake, it can become more challenging to get enough nutrients, especially vitamins, minerals, and proteins.

Regular physical activity helps to maintain a healthy weight, and it’s also helpful for your general health and wellbeing. Physical activity not only helps with losing weight, it can also help to keep common ailments like urinary tract infections and chronic conditions like constipation at bay. If personal movement is restricted by paralysis, a standing wheelchair can help “exercise you” by changing your positions which can help you stretch and improve circulation and spasticity.

How to Lose Weight in a Wheelchair

Reduce calories

Disability benefits can cover consultations with a dietitian or qualified weight management adviser. If they do, consult with a dietitian about the proper diet based on your condition.

Due to limited mobility, your physical activity is likely lower than that of non-disabled individuals. And because your body is burning fewer calories, the amount of energy that you need is also lower. Hence, consuming the regular amount of calories without taking your physical limitations to account can lead to weight gain.

If you want to lose excess weight, reducing your caloric intake is the best way to do so.

Eat a healthy diet

There is no bad food or good food. All types of food provide varying levels of nutrients for your body, regardless of composition. However, some foods contain fewer nutrients and are more calorie-dense, which can make you gain weight but are slow to make you feel full (e.g., chips, french fries, cookies, etc.).

bowl full of healthy food

The picture of a healthy diet is the same for all adults, only in varying amounts. A healthy diet consists of:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, peas, beans, etc.
  • Sources of protein such as fish, chicken, beef, pork, etc.
  • Dairy products
  • Healthy oils

And less of:

  • Processed foods
  • Fast food
  • Sodium-rich foods
  • Foods high in fat and carbs


It’s perfectly okay to indulge in a piece of chocolate cake or a fast-food meal from time to time. Make sure to moderate your intake. However, if you have other medical conditions that entail the need for nutrient modification, such as diabetes or hypertension, it’s recommended to stay away from foods high in fat, salt, and sugar.

Maintaining Mobility

Maintain your mobility and burn calories by getting out of the house and wheeling where you need to go if you have arm mobility. The more you sit at home immobile, the fewer calories you burn.

If you need to go to the store, try going yourself instead of asking someone to go for you. Using your wheelchair to get around utilizes the muscles in your arms and burns calories.

Purchase a line of fitness DVDs that specialize in wheelchair exercises. “Sit and Be Fit” is one specific line of exercise videos designed for people in wheelchairs. You may be able to rent these DVDs or videos from your local library for free. Even listening to music can help stimulate some natural movements!

happy woman on her wheelchair

Do as much or as little as you possibly can; the important thing is that you put in the effort. Try to work out to a wheelchair exercise program at least five days a week.

Losing weight and keeping it off is a challenge for many wheelchair users, especially those who went from being fully able-bodied to suddenly having limited mobility. However, achieving a healthy weight is not impossible for wheelchair users, and these strategies can help make the journey easier.

Being Underweight

Many people in the wheelchair community also have problems with unwanted weight loss. Research suggests that some people with a disability are more likely to be underweight than people in other population groups. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, a person with a physical disability may have decreased muscle mass or may experience difficulty eating and swallowing. 

There are several ways that a person with a disability can successfully manage their weight to avoid unwanted weight loss. See your doctor or dietitian for expert advice.

Contributing factors

For people with a disability, some of the contributing factors that may lead to unwanted weight loss could include:

  • A particular medical condition that affects the body’s metabolism 
  • The person becoming less active and losing muscle mass  
  • Medications that may decrease appetite 
  • Difficulty eating and swallowing 
  • Eating habits that may be affected by depression, anxiety, or frustration 
  • Dependence on family members or carers to provide meals 
  • Poor knowledge of nutrition and weight management.

Healthy diet suggestions for those wanting to gain weight

See your dietitian for advice on how many calories you need to consume each day to achieve a slow, healthy weight gain. Suggestions include:

an old man on his wheelchair preparing healthy food
  • Eat more often. Eating six or more small meals and snacks throughout each day may be easier than eating three large meals and can help boost the appetite. 
  • Use favorite foods. Foods that bring little interest are likely to be left on the plate. You are more likely to eat if favorite meals and snacks are provided. Make sure that your diet has a range of healthy foods. 
  • Choose full fat foods. Extra calories are needed to achieve weight gain, so choose full fat rather than low or non-fat food products. 
  • Add extra calories to meals. Mixing grated cheese, milk powder, butter, or oil into favorite meals adds extra calories and flavor without having to eat a large quantity of food. 
  • Exercise regularly. Any type of regular physical activity, even gentle stretching, can help stimulate appetite. Exercise can also help you gain muscle tissue.

The Right Chair

Whether it’s increasing mobility for daily life or physical activity, cooking from home or adding a variety of exercises to your routine, a Redman Power Chair can help you do it all.

Learn more by continuing to explore our website and feel free to inquire about a free in-home demo of our positioning power chair that can greatly improve your life!

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