Although we have had the Paralympic Games since the 1950s, the wearable fitness tracker industry has been slower in adapting fitness and activity monitoring to the needs of those with disabilities and wheelchair users, with the first support by fitness technologies for disabled or physically challenged individuals beginning just a few years ago.
Wonderfully, leading technology companies have recently updated their fitness watch software to include features to accommodate disabilities, including such features as a ‘wheelchair mode’. With these adaptations, now folks with disabilities can measure physical activities, set fitness goals, and measure your basic vital statistics, all very conveniently on a lightweight screen worn on the wrist. This can be an excellent tool to help take proactive steps toward better health.
It is to be noted, however, that you will only be registering notable and relevant physical activities on these watches if you are on a manual wheelchair and self-propelling it via the wheels. If you are in a power wheelchair, unfortunately, there will not be any marked physical activity while riding the wheelchair, but you may still continue to complete your physiotherapy routines and register fitness data and activity.
In this article, we discuss and share the best fitness watches for wheelchair users. Below is a quick snapshot of our best watch picks, and we dive into more details before. Let’s get started!
Last update 2021-10-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Smartwatch Software Updates to Accommodate Wheelchair Users
Apple and Fitbit together claim a majority of the wearable technology market and have been leading innovations in this area recently. Until 2017 when Apple came out with a software update aimed for wheelchair users, there was no dedicated watch software for wheelchair users. This serves as a great leap in fostering inclusivity for the wheelchair-bound fitness enthusiasts in the ongoing fitness device boom that’s currently happening in the technology industry.
From what began as a year-long stealth project within Apple that gathered the first-hand experience input from many wheelchair users, Apple released its a new operating system update in 2017 for its Apple Watch Series 3. This update has incorporated two additional modes for fitness tracking – the Outdoor Wheelchair: Walk Pace and the Outdoor Wheelchair: Run Pace.
With this update, wheelchair users are able to key in information regarding seat height and wheel sizes and the watch app measures one’s activity and burnt calories as per the terrain one is moving on and type of activity. For instance, you may be just self-propelling your wheelchair on a rugged terrain, and your Apple Watch will register more activity than wheeling on a smooth surface! Further, the Apple Watch can differentiate between uphill and downhill movements.
Apple tends to influence and inspire the technology device market at large, so their leap in this direction is great news!
Other Brands: Fitbit, Garmin, Xiaomi
Fitbit (acquired by Google), on the other hand, tracks wheelchair movements as steps, which are mostly the arm movements required for the manual propelling of a wheelchair. An accompanying fitness app will need to be installed on your smartphone and you’ll be able to track basic fitness statistics through it – like the distance traveled, calorie measurements, or a number of steps taken (which will need to be further adapted to wheelchair users).
It also allows you analyze your sleep patterns if worn throughout your sleeping time. However, unlike Apple, the Fitbit devices and accompanying software do not have a dedicated mode for wheelchair users as of yet. Having said that, it is still a viable product that can be used if you are in a wheelchair to accurately measure your daily activity.
There are other companies, like Garmin and Xiaomi, which share the same problem of not yet having a dedicated feature or mode for wheelchair users, but overall, do a good job in measuring fitness statistics.
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Recent Features in Smartwatches & Fitness Trackers
In general and for all users, smartwatches and fitness trackers have adopted some great new technologies and fitness tracking features lately, and you’ll see most of these is most smartwatches by leading fitness tracking companies on the market.
- GPS tracker for accurately tracking distance covered and speeds achieved.
- NFC (Near Field Communication) which can be used for contactless payments and file transfers.
- SpO2 sensor for measuring oxygen levels in the blood. For now, this just serves as a reading, and companies do not use the data to make suggestions about medical conditions due to lack of FDA approval on this front.
- ECG (Electrocardiogram) or Heart Rate Monitor to check cardiovascular health and changes in heart rates.
The Best Recommended Smartwatches for Wheelchair Users
#1 – Apple Watch Series 5 Smartwatch
Released to run on the latest Apple OS 6 software, the Apple Watch Series 5 is Apple’s flagship smartwatch of 2019. Available in 2 sizes of 40 mm & 44 mm, it is distinctly larger than previous models.
The watch runs on a dual-core S5 processor, a significant jump in speed compared to the S3 processor. Faster processing speeds mean your concurrent apps on your watch can run faster without noticeable lag.
- Built-in GPS device for better tracking of distance traveled.
- Extremely accurate fitness statistics and cardiovascular health monitor.
- Fall detection technology.
- Built-in compass never lets you feel disoriented.
- Integrates Apple Pay which runs on NFC technology and lets you make contactless payments at enabled stores.
- Great processing power.
- Lighter than the Apple Watch 3, despite its larger screen!
- As with many of Apple’s offerings, their flagship watch is one of the most expensive smartwatches on the market.
- Integration and a number of and features are compatible only with iPhones.
- With the larger screen size, may look a bit larger on small wrists.
Here is a review of the Apple Watch Series 5 by The Verge:
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#2 – Apple Watch Series 3 Smart Watch
Apple’s 2017 flagship watch is now available at a lower price thanks to the release of newer models, but still comes with Apple’s great hardware, software, quality control, and customer support. As such, the Series 3 Apple Watch makes for an excellent value choice. As of 2021, it is also the earliest Apple Watch model to still be supported by Apple in software updates, meaning it can be updated to the very latest software and user interface versions that the newest Apple Watches receive.
This is first Apple Watch model that came with LTE technology, which is a fast 4G wireless communication standard and allows your watch have its own cellular connection. This means this watch can make and receive calls as well as text message totally independent of your phone. However, you have to have an Iphone to finally get this device integrated with, its just that you do not need to carry your phone everywhere.
- Much more affordable than the Series 5 with no great compromise for features.
- Can be updated to the latest Apple watchOS software.
- GPS tracking and Compass enabled for help with directions.
- Completely integrated with your iPhone to let you do most of your activities without taking your phone out.
- Just the right size of screen for many (especially the 38 mm model), with enough space for a consolidated fitness view.
- Connected to Apple Music – gives you access to a lot more music choices.
- Can only be integrated with iPhones. Compatibility issue with other brands of phones.
- Battery life may be lower than similar products from other companies.
- Apple appears to provide software support for its watches for approximately 4 years, so 2021 could potentially be the final year that the Series 3 Watch will receive new software updates.
- A tad heavier than its newer sibling, the Apple Watch 5, despite having a slightly smaller screen. The heaviest watch in our selection.
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#3 – Fitbit Versa 2 Heath and Fitness Smart Watch
Running on the Fitbit operating system 3.0, this fitness tracking device is one of the most advanced from the Fitbit stable of products. Founded in 2007, Fitbit has been a front stage player in the fitness tracking and smartwatch industry for years, and had been producing fitness smartwatches well before Apple entered the market. Google acquired Fitbit in January of 2021, and is sure to integrate its watches into its wide ecosystem.
The Versa 2 has a touchscreen has a very simplistic and pleasing aesthetic with a variety of fitness tracking options that Fitbit has refined over the years. It has a number of third party options which you can use to regularly change the look and feel of your watch, much like a desktop or phone theme. With Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa built-in, you can use your voice to obtain information or control your smart home devices right from your watch.
- Continuous and accurate heart rate monitoring.
- Provides sleep pattern tracking across the different phases of sleep.
- Scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass lets you use the device a bit more freely and not have to worry about scratching up your new watch.
- Water resistant up to 50 meters depth.
- Wider screen compiles a lot more fitness statistics on the same screen than bands or sleeker models.
- 2.5 GB storage for songs (about 300 songs).
- Built in integration with Amazon Alexa.
- Battery life may be shorter compared to other Fitbit devices. This is mainly due the colour touchscreen. Also depends on your usage pattern.
- No GPS for speed tracking.
- Accuracy of activity tracking like steps is average.
- Some premium apps and aesthetic features like clock faces require additional purchase.
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#4 – Fitbit Charge 3 Fitness Activity Tracker
Next we have a sleeker, lighter, fitness band by Fitbit. The Charge 3 is an improvement on earlier Charge models and has more screen space to display data that increases readability. It supports a range of fitness modes which can be accessed the swiping across the touchscreen.
Think of the Charge as the more portable, less feature-rich cousin of the Versa. It doesn’t support third-party apps and has a smaller screen than the Versa, but it certainly is lighter and its battery lasts longer, making it a great option for more active individuals or those who want a super-light watch and tracker on their wrist.
- Like other Fitbit models, water resistant to 50 meters depth.
- Great battery life. Often lasts 6 – 8 days with full charge. Longer than Versa.
- SpO2 sensor or pulse oxymeter, which indirectly measures the level of oxygen in the blood.
- Fitbit pay feature for access to contactless payments.
- Provides sleep pattern tracking and lets you know the number of hours of ‘deep sleep’.
- Incredibly light at just 29 g or about 1 oz.
- No GPS, therefore accurate distance tracking and real-time feedback on speed are absent.
- No music storage; drawback for people who love listening to music during a workout.
- Does not support third-party apps.
- Limited number of watch appearances to choose from.
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#5 – Garmin Forerunner 35
This is an earlier, top-end Garmin activity tracker with GPS and wrist-based heart rate monitoring technology and with different fitness tracking modes. This device can seamlessly connect to your phone (compatible models) and show notifications on the go.
The Forerunner series of watches was first introduced back in 2003, so Garmin has been producing and optimizing this line for nearly two decades.
- GPS enabled; lets you accurately measure distance and speed of wheelchair use.
- 24/7 steps tracking, heart rate tracking, and shows comprehensive health and fitness statistics.
- Can track change in elevation; good way to tell whether you have been wheeling uphill or downhill.
- Good battery life.
- Lens is chemically-strengthened glass.
- Option to upload data on Garmin Connect and interact on their fitness community.
- No music storage of its own.
- Small, monochrome black and white display.
- Not compatible with some smartphones. Please check your phone compatibility before buying.
- Looks more industrial and less sleek compared to newer fitness smartwatches.
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#6 – Xiaomi Mi Band 4
With the Mi Band 4, Xiaomi attempts to disrupt the fitness tracker market with an incredibly affordable smartwatch. This fitness band has many of the desirable fitness features, including a heart rate tracker and various modes of workout, though it does not have a mode specific to wheelchair use.
- A fair variety of features that make it great value considering its very affordable price point.
- GPS enabled for accurate tracking of running/walking distance & speeds.
- Activity and sleep tracking.
- An OLED display, which is impressive for such an affordable smartwatch. High contrast, deep blacks, rich colors, and sufficiently bright (450 nits peak) for visibility in the sun.
- Best in the class battery life of 15 – 20 days. Battery recharges in just 2 hours, and lasts up to 20 days! OLED display sips battery slowly because only necessary pixels turn on.
- The very lightest smartwatch in our selection at only 22.1 g or 0.78 ounces!
- When you sync it with your Android phone, there is no feature for answering your call, so you will have to take the call from your phone. You may only decline calls.
- Less features can be consolidated on the home screen due to the size of the screen.
- The watch may count some false steps [not applicable for wheelchair subjects].
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Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What should I look for in a fitness watch if I use a wheelchair?
The best fitness watches for wheelchair users are currently those that offer a dedicated wheelchair mode or options within their activity and fitness apps that accommodate wheelchair use. Besides that, choose a watch from a leading smartwatch manufacturer, as those are more likely to contain all the standard great fitness and activity tracking features, as well as more likely to push an update in the future to provide further adaptations for physically disabled users.
Q. How do I enable the wheelchair modes if I have an Apple Watch 3 or newer?
Please see this link on Apple’s website for more details about the modes they offer for wheelchair users.
Q. What new advancements is Apple currently working on to further accommodate physically disabled users?
Apple has been hard at work to generate exciting new bits of hardware and software tweaks to widen their accommodations for their Apple Watch users who have physical disabilities. Read more about their upcoming updates here.
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Parting Words – Accessibility Expanding to Wearable Tech
In the exciting time we live in where we see leaps in mobile technologies every year, it’s great to see that companies are adapting wearable devices to accommodate folks with disabilities like wheelchair users. Now, more than ever before, we’re seeing smartwatches begin to feature modes and options that take into account physical disabilities or wheelchair use.
One thing we hope to see addressed is that the best smartwatches with the most accommodating features like Apple’s watches are still on the expensive side for a wearable device, but we expect to see prices wind down in the future as more companies adopt accessibility adaptations and as the technology matures. Without a doubt, even budget smartwatches will accommodate disabilities in the future.
With that, we have selected six great smartwatches for wheelchair users, and our top pick is the Apple Watch Series 5, which is one of the very best smartwatches on the market, The Series 5 Watch has many leading technological and health-promoting features packed in and supported by the hardware and software reliability that Apple is known for. It is, however, only compatible with other Apple products.
Our value-for-money pick for Apple users would be the Apple Watch Series 3, which was the flagship Apple watch just a few years ago and is still a great watch with the latest software updates. For non-Apple users, the Fitbit Versa 2 comes packed with its own great fitness features with a water-resistant casing, and is a great value as well. For those who can be satisfied with fewer features but still a good experience, the Xiaomi Mi Band 4 is incredibly affordable relative to other smartwatches from top manufacturers on the market.