Physical activity has many benefits that can improve physical and emotional health. Lack of physical activity increases the risk of many medical problems including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and poor bone quality. Studies suggest that persons with an intellectual disability, when compared to the rest of the population, have decreased cardiovascular fitness and strength.
Intellectual disability is the most common developmental disability and refers to a person’s limitation in cognitive function and other skills such as communication and self-care. Such disability can limit one’s involvement in many activities, including physical fitness programs.
Physical activity programs tailored to persons with intellectual disabilities have been shown to improve physical characteristics such as cardiovascular fitness, strength, weight, and balance. Additionally, physical activity boosts self-esteem and can improve behavior. Participation in group classes or events offers a social outlet for the participant as well as the care-givers.
Physical activity programs typically focus on different types of training such as aerobic conditioning, strength training, flexibility or stretching, and balance. Individuals can benefit from any or all of these.
Examination & Evaluation
Before starting any new physical fitness program, it is a good idea to check with your doctor. Persons with disabilities may have medical conditions that warrant some precautions before being cleared to participate.
Down Syndrome is a common genetic condition associated with intellectual disability that is also associated with ligamentous laxity (loose joints) and low muscle tone (decreased strength or control of muscles). Because ligaments help stabilize the joints of the neck, individuals with Down Syndrome may be at increased risk of cervical spine injury during certain sports or activities. The doctor may, therefore, recommend a series of X-rays of the neck prior to participation.
Seizure disorder is another example of a condition affecting some individuals with intellectual disability. Seizure activity may prevent individuals from engaging in certain activities. Additionally, medications may have side effects that should be considered.
Nutritional status and body fat composition vary among individuals and can affect heat and cold tolerance. It is important to drink plenty of fluids and wear appropriate clothing to perform safely in different environments.
Aerobic Activity -
Aerobic activity, sometimes referred to as cardio or fitness training, is activity of moderate to high intensity that can be sustained over a long period of time. It relies on the repeated use of large muscle groups. Examples include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, wheelchair use, dancing, or other activities that can be sustained at a moderate pace. Benefits include improvements in respiration (breathing), endurance, cardiovascular health (heart muscle pumping efficiency, circulation, and blood pressure), mental health (decreased stress and depression), blood sugar regulation (decreased diabetes), and bone health. To achieve benefits, aerobic activity should be performed for at least 30 minutes at a time, three days per week.
Strength Training -
Strength training, also known as weight training, is physical exercise that utilizes resistance to induce muscle contraction. Examples include push-ups, weightlifting, power lifting, as well as sports such as shotput, discus and javelin throwing. Benefits include increased muscle mass, stronger bones, weight control, better balance, improved attention, and reduced symptoms of chronic conditions such as back pain, arthritis, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Strength training exercises focus on major muscle groups and are often done in sets of ten to fifteen repetitions. To achieve benefits, at least one set of an exercise of each major muscle group should be performed at least two days per week. It is important to exercise muscles on both sides of a joint to prevent muscle imbalance.
Stretching Exercises -
Stretching can be done at any time and should be done before and after exercise. Stretching improves flexibility and the range of motion of joints. The key to stretching is to perform the stretch slowly and continuously without bouncing. Holding a stretch for at least 10 seconds is recommended, but muscles that spasm or are extra tight should be stretched longer. Benefits include improved movement, decreased soreness and spasticity, and decreased injury.
Balance Exercises -
Balance exercises can be done anytime, anywhere. Examples include standing on one foot, walking heel to toe (as if on a tight rope), or side leg lifts. These exercises are useful in preventing falls and building confidence.
The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA) believes that all persons with intellectual disabilities should be encouraged to participate in physical fitness activities or sports. Many activities can be performed individually at home; however, there is additional social benefit if one gets out and exercises with others. Many fitness centers now offer programs tailored to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Organizations such as the Special Olympics provide year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Started in the 1960’s, the Special Olympics’ global reach now expands to 4.4 million athletes around the world with 80,000 events and competitions held annually. You can view their website at www.specialolympics.org