Hesperian Health Guides

Different Exercises for Different Needs

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Disabled Village Children > Chapter 42: Range-of-Motion and Other Exercises > Different Exercises for Different Needs

Different kinds of exercises are needed to meet the special needs of different children. On the next two pages we give an example of each kind of exercise. Then we look at some of the different exercises in more detail.

Purpose of exercise Kind of exercise
To maintain or increase joint motion 1. Range-of-motion exercises (ROM)
2. Stretching exercises
To maintain or increase strength 3. Strengthening exercise with motion: exercises that work the muscles and move the joint against resistance
4. Strengthening exercises without motion: exercises that work the muscles without moving the joint
To improve position 5. Practice at holding things or doing things in good positions
To improve control 6. Practice doing certain movements and actions, to improve balance or control

1. Range-of-motion exercises (ROM)

Ram is 2 years old. Two weeks ago he became sick with polio and both legs became paralyzed.
A boy lying on his side
Ram needs range-of-motion exercises to keep the full motion of his joints, so they will not develop contractures. At least 2 times a day, his mother slowly bends, straightens, and moves all the joints as far as they normally go. All these are exercises for his knee. For other ROM exercises he needs, see Complete Range-of-Motion Exercises—Upper Limbs.
A boy lying on his back while an adult is bending his legs
Boy lying on his back while his feet are being stretched out
Boy lying on his back with straight legs while one leg is being held up straight

2. Stretching exercises

Lola, who is now 4, had polio at age 2. She did not have any exercises to keep the range of motion in her joints, and now she has severe contractures especially of the knees. Lola’s mother does stretching exercises several times a day, to straighten the joints a little more each day. Stretching exercises are like ROM exercises, but the joint is held with firm,steady pressure in a position that slowly stretches it.
A child crawling
a girl lying on her back and having her leg stretched

3. Strengthening exercises with motion

A boy spraying himself with poisonous material
A boy sitting and raising his leg with a sandbag attached
Chon was 6 years old when he got his clothes and body wet with a poison his father used to kill weeds. A week later his legs became so weak he could not stand. Now, 2 months have passed, and Chon is a little stronger. But he still falls when he tries to stand. To help strengthen the weak muscles in his thighs, Chon can raise and lower his leg like this—first without added weight and later with a sandbag on his ankle. As his leg gets stronger the weight can be increased.

4. Strengthening exercises without motion

Clara, who is 9 years old, has a very painful knee. It hurts her to move it and her thigh muscles have become so weak she cannot stand on the leg. She cannot do exercises like Chon does because it hurts her knee too much.
A girl lying on the floor and tightening her thigh muscles
Make this muscle as hard as you can. Good! Now keep it hard and count to 25.
But Clara can do exercises to strengthen her leg without moving her knee. She holds it straight and tightens the muscles in her thigh.

For more information see Exercises without motion.

5. Exercises to improve position

Ernesto is 8 years old and has early signs of muscular dystrophy. Among other problems, he is developing a swayback.
A boy with a sway back
Ask Ernesto to stand against a wall and to pull in his stomach so that his lower back comes as close to the wall as possible. Ask him to try to always stand that way, and praise him when he does.
Boy standing against with back against wall.
Because swayback is often partly caused by weak stomach muscles, strengthening the stomach muscles by doing ‘sit-ups’ may also help. See if Ernesto can still do sit-ups—at least part way, and have him do them twice a day. Boy doing sit-ups with bent knees.
It is best to do sit-ups with the knees bent. (With legs straight, the hip-bending muscles may do more work than the stomach muscles.)

6. Exercises to improve balance and control

Celia is 3 and still cannot walk without being held up. She has poor balance. Many exercises and activities might help her improve her balance and control of her body. Here are 2 ideas for different stages in her development. For other possibilities, see Chapter 35 on Early Stimulation. Play games with her to see if she can lift one leg, and then the other.
Girl walking, balancing on fallen trunk.
After Celia has learned to walk alone, if she still seems unsteady, walking on a log or narrow board may help her to improve her balance.
Girl on hands and knees, one arm and one leg extended.
This will help her shift her weight from side to side and keep her balance.


Often several kinds of exercises, involving different parts of the body, can be done through one activity—often an ordinary activity that children enjoy.

Boy with one weak, bent, leg.
For example, Kim, who is 8 years old, had polio as a baby. His right leg is weak, his knee does not quite straighten, and the heel cord of his right foot is getting tight. He is also developing a sway back.
Boy with one weak leg riding a bike.
Many of the exercises Kim needs he can do by riding a bicycle.
The biking position helps improve the position of his back.
The movement of pedaling gives range-of-motion and stretching exercises to his knee.
Learning to ride improves his balance and his control, so that all parts of his body work smoothly together.
Pushing the pedal down strengthens the thigh muscle.
Pushing down on the pedal stretches the tight heel cord.

Note: Ordinary activities that exercise the whole body, like riding a bicycle or swimming, can provide many of the exercises that a child needs. But sometimes specific exercises using special methods are needed. Some special exercises are included in this chapter.

This page was updated:19 Jan 2018