May 11, 2011

by: LeafBridge Services Contributor

Motivations for Physical Activity

It is well known that physical activity and exercise is beneficial to our bodies: heart and lungs, muscles, bones and joints, brain and GI system.  Like adults, children need exercise too. Most children need at least an hour of physical activity every day.  Regular exercise helps them:
• Feel less stressed
• Feel better about themselves
• Be prepared to pay attention and learn in school
• Keep a healthy weight
• Build and keep healthy bones, muscles and joints
• Sleep better at night

Children and adults with special needs also need physical activity and exercise to gain these same benefits.  Children with special needs often have reduced physical activity levels and exhibit greater weakness and less endurance than children without disabilities. These children can benefit from progressive resistance (weight) training to improve strength and function as well as the social/emotional benefits from participating in sports and exercise.  Physical activity can also reduce or eliminate some secondary conditions experienced by youth with disabilities such as low bone mass, increased musculoskeletal weakness and pain.

Throughout the past year, a group of children’s therapy clients have completed 4 or 6 week Steps to Independence sessions with the primary goal of improving physical fitness and wellness.  These are junior high or high school students who are doing well with their school work but do not have ample opportunity to be physically active due to physical barriers in the community, manpower (parents working) and limited knowledge in the areas of fitness and wellness.  The goals for therapy were achieved in increasing strength and endurance in specific areas, along with functional outcomes, such as carrying a laundry basket upstairs independently, getting in and out of bed without help, or being able to move from a chair to standing by themselves.  However, we were surprised by the additional outcomes and benefits of increased physical activity in participants.  All of the participants demonstrated improved sleep, increased confidence communicating with others (clear speech, improved eye contact), increased frequency of initiating movement and the speed of moving through space and an alertness and energy level that far exceeded their baseline. In addition, activities were often completed in a group setting where the children had an opportunity to interact with their peers in a positive atmosphere.

Many children and young adults receive regular exercise programs with a large component of functional training during weekly Physical and Occupational Therapy sessions at UCP. However, what happens the rest of the week? Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all children and adolescents with disabilities are included in physical education, the majority of youth with disabilities do not receive the same amount of physical activity as youth without disabilities and are not getting all of the physical activity they need at school. Where do children and adults with special needs go to exercise? Individuals with disabilities have a difficult time utilizing community resources and fitness centers because of accessibility issues, lack of adapted equipment and knowledgeable trainers or guidance. Some UCP clients and their families have sought out aquatic programs and horseback riding. Others have purchased or acquired adapted bikes and walkers to help promote physical activity. 

Physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management and social support are all components of wellness. Talk to your therapist about incorporating physical activity and wellness into your family’s and your child’s life style. The therapist can offer realistic exercise recommendations and set goals to improve aerobic capacity, flexibility and strength in children and adults with special needs. This can contribute immensely to an individual’s health and wellness.

Here are some activities to consider:

Take a family bike ride—Here are some examples of adaptive bikes
Take a family walk
Swimming lessons
Horseback riding
Youth Challenge

Sports Resources:

Wheelchair Sports
Adaptive Skiing


Milestones also has a good resource contact list for various Cleveland area sports and activities.

Encourage your family members and friends with special needs to try out different activities and determine what they like best.  Staying healthy and being fit can be (and should be) enjoyable!  Always check with your therapist, physician and other medical personnel to determine appropriate activities – and most importantly have fun!

Published in partnership with Rebecca Ravas, UCP Physical Therapist.

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