A disability may create obstacles to physical fitness, but it doesn’t mean exercise is off the table.
On the contrary, an active, healthy lifestyle is even more important for those with limited mobility.
“People with physical or cognitive disabilities can improve their strength, stamina, weight management, over all functioning, and quality of life with regular, specifically tailored exercises,” said Samantha Heller, an exercise physiologist and adjunct professor with New York University’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care & Sports Performance Center in New York City, in an email interview.
Indeed, the most recent research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities. (Calculator: What would a disability do to my finances)
Yet, nearly half of all adults with disabilities get no aerobic physical activity, the health protection agency found, which is critical to avoiding chronic disease.1
To lead a long and healthy life, the CDC recommends adults with disabilities try to get at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity in each week (brisk walking, wheeling oneself in a wheelchair) or at least one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as jogging, or wheelchair basketball. (Related: Backwards Bill: A lesson in mutual support)
Muscle-strengthening activities, it adds, should include moderate and high-intensity, and involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week, such as working with a resistance-band, or adapted yoga.
Children and adolescents should do one hour or more of physical activity per week, the CDC recommends, noting those who are not able to meet the physical activity guidelines should engage in regular physical activities based on their abilities.
The key is to start slow and ensure safety by consulting a health care provider who knows your health history and condition, said Heller. That is especially important if you have a condition that affects your muscles, such as multiple sclerosis.
“It is best for people with disabilities to work with specialists such as physical and occupational therapists to create appropriate fitness programs for them,” she said.
Exercise options for those with disabilities
Aerobic exercises that focus on cardiovascular endurance may include adapted cycling, swimming, rowing, or walking, while those that strengthen muscle groups might include weight training, Yoga or CrossFit.
Flexibility exercises, such as stretching, can also help improve range of motion.
A combined approach to physical fitness helps improve daily living activities and independence, decreases the risk of developing chronic diseases, and improves mental health, the CDC reports.
“An individual with a disability could potentially do any type of physical activity that they desire from Yoga to CrossFit and everything in between,” said Kelly Bonner, an information specialist with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity & Disability (NCHPAD), noting it really just depends on what their goals are and what they enjoy. “If you are looking for specific adapted equipment, it’s probably been invented, from hand cycles to water and snow skiing to every day gym equipment created specifically for individuals who use a wheelchair.”
Resources and support groups for those with disabilities
The NCHPAD offers general exercise guidelines in its “Get the Facts” magazine, including tips for how to design safe workout programs, pre-exercise considerations (blood pressure and hypertension), and the types of questions those with disabilities need to ask at the gym. 2
For parents of disabled children, it also offers information on the different types of camps that may be appropriate for their kids. (Related: Financial advice for special-needs families)
Support groups and organizations that represent persons with special needs or disabilities, including Parkinson’s, Down Syndrome, Autism and Cerebral Palsy, can also be a valuable resource in helping to identify recommended therapies and fitness programs.
Some fitness centers, in fact, cater specifically to the disabled, including Indianapolis, Indiana-based Rock Steady Boxing, with locations across the country that offer non-contact boxing inspired fitness classes for those battling Parkinson’s disease. (Related: One family’s fight against Parkinson’s)
Similarly, AllTernative Gym, based in Austell, Georgia, works with special needs children and adults with developmental disabilities and conditions, including cerebral palsy patients and stroke victims.
To locate a Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer who is trained on safe, effective, and adapted methods of exercise for people with disabilities, the American College of Sports Medicine offers its own searchable database.
Holistic care and a healthy lifestyle
Ultimately, however, exercise is just one component of leading a healthy lifestyle, said Bonner.
Like their non-disabled peers, persons with disabilities must also tend to their social and emotional needs. And, they should engage in healthy behaviors, such as eating well, getting regular check-ups, avoiding smoking and using medicines wisely.
To help, MassMutual offers resources for families caring for a loved one with special needs, including tips on finding family balance and life care plans specifically aimed at creating a safety net that will provide for your child as he or she ages.3
“Getting healthy and staying healthy won’t happen overnight and it takes a concerted effort to focus on more than just your physical health for true overall wellness,” said Bonner in an interview. “Creating a holistic approach will help you feel better physically, emotionally, socially and more.”
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This article was originally published in September 2016. It has been updated.
1 Centers for Disease Control, “Vital Signs,” Nov 16, 2018.
2 National Center on Health, Physical Activity & Disability, “Get the Facts,” April 8, 2020.
3 A Life Care Plan is a coordinated program of future care planning, financial, and legal strategies for people with disabilities and their families. A Life Care Plan continually changes throughout an individual's lifetime and is provided by a team that may include your legal and tax advisors as well as insurance and investment professionals.