The Importance of Physical Activity for Children with Disabilities


There is plenty of information out there on the importance of encouraging children to engage in regular physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle, and most people are aware of the significant advantages that regular exercise brings to children at all developmental stages of life. However, when our child have a disability, encouraging physical activity may sometimes seem to be less of a priority – after all, they already may have enough limitations in their day-to-day lives, without trying to get them to participate in activities that they may find overly physically or cognitively demanding.

Numerous studies have shown that children with disabilities generally have lower levels of physical fitness and research has clearly demonstrated that a sedentary lifestyle and lower levels of physical fitness are associated with shorter attention spans, impediments and limitations in motor development, limited mental ability and lack of motivation to try one’s best. It stands to reason then that children living with disabilities may benefit even more from participating in physical activities than their able-bodied peers.

The Importance of Physical Activity for Children with Disabilities | Children with Disabilities

The benefits of exercise for children

Exercise has proven benefits for all children, regardless of their neurological, cognitive, or physical ability. All children need an energy outlet, and the health benefits of regular exercise are clearly documented:

  • Enhanced physical fitness
  • Better weight control
  • Better bone density
  • Improved motor skills
  • Improved cognitive health
  • Better psychological and emotional health
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Reduced risk of diseases linked to sedentary behaviour, such as diabetes

Participation in team sports affords children all these benefits and carries the added benefits of developing their capacity for self-control, improving their self-confidence, and strengthening interpersonal skills such as relationship building and negotiation and teamwork skills.

The benefits of exercise for children with disabilities

The benefits of exercise for children with disabilities

The benefits of physical exercise are just as applicable to children with special needs as they are to any other child. In fact, research has shown that participation in sports and exercise not only improves the physical fitness, social competence, and self-esteem of children with disabilities, but it is also associated with reduced maladaptive behaviour – i.e., behaviour that interferes with a child’s ability to participate in particular settings, adapt to new or difficult circumstances, or their ability to perform or complete daily living activities.

One study, in which children with intellectual disabilities were involved in carefully designed physical exercise programs, researchers reported noticeable improvements in successful performance of motor tasks – particularly, increased strength and muscle tone and better limb coordination, movement control and spatial orientation.

Encouraging children with disabilities to participate in physical activity can help improve balance and endurance, improve their ability to concentrate, provide the stimulation required to assist with more complete development, promote integration with peers and increase their opportunities to socialise. These benefits flow into every aspect of their lives, helping them to realise that, with practice and perseverance, their fears and physical limitations can be overcome. Moreover, as they grow and mature, regular physical activity can help support activities of daily living and provide them greater independence.

The Importance of Physical Activity for Children with Disabilities | Children with Disabilities

Physical activities and adaptive sports for children with disabilities

When looking to incorporate more physical activity into the life of your differently-abled child, possibly the most important thing to do is to consult a healthcare professional, such as your child’s GP, specialist, physiotherapist or occupational therapist, before you start. These professionals know your child and are familiar with your child’s condition or disability, and they will be best placed to advise on what activities or sports can be done safely and which should be avoided. This is important because neurological, cognitive and physical differences will mean that a physical activity that is recommended for one child may be advised against for another, even if the children share the same diagnosis.

Most physical activities and sports can be adapted to cater for the specific needs of children with disabilities – equipment can be modified, rules may be altered, special safety devices may be used, with the goal of making these activities more accessible. All that is needed is a little imagination or innovation.

Therapeutic riding programs can be enjoyed by children with all kinds of disabilities; swimming is a great sport for those with chronic pain; handball is a great choice for building hand-eye coordination in children with proprioception issues; and soccer is a good low-contact sport that allows children to build teamwork skills and cardiovascular fitness. While cardiovascular activity is important, muscle-strengthening activities, such as adapted yoga or working with resistance bands, can also provide health benefits.

Children confined to a wheelchair have many options available, like tennis, basketball, boccia or shot put, adaptable hand bikes and weightlifting, while swimming can provide both a physical and sensory experience. There are wheelchair sports teams around too, which can provide wheelchair-bound children with the opportunity to participate in their chosen sport at competition-level.

The Importance of Physical Activity for Children with Disabilities | Children with Disabilities

Encouraging physical activity for differently-abled children

As parents of differently-abled children we can sometimes be wary of encouraging our children to exercise or to participate in team sports… we may fear that they will be ridiculed by their peers, or that they may be more prone to injury or may exacerbate physical conditions.

It is natural that we want to protect our children, particularly when we see them struggle with tasks and activities that other children find easy. However, trying to protect our differently-abled children by dissuading them from participating in exercise or team sports, is probably doing them more than good.

Rather than discouraging our children with special needs from participating in physical and activities and denying them the opportunity to engage with their peers and experience the sheer joy that can come from overcoming their limitations, mastering a new skill, or simply getting the endorphins flowing, we need to help them find a physical activity they enjoy, guide them to discover their strengths and find a sport or activity in which they can succeed. Not only will it benefit their physical and mental health, but it will also boost their confidence and self-esteem and improve their quality of life.

ConnectAbility is committed to “empowering people to achieve their goals, dreams and aspirations.” We deliver person-centred care and can connect you with a range of health professionals and disability experts, who can work with your child to build physical activity into their everyday life and help you to find the equipment your child might need to participate fully and safely in their chosen physical activity – we can even help you get in contact with sporting teams that cater to people living with disabilities.

You can visit ConnectAbility at our Warabrook or Erina NSW locations, or you can call or email us for more information or assistance. If you think you or someone you know could benefit from our services, please make a referral online and we will be in touch as soon as possible.

This information is not intended to replace the advice from trained medical professionals. Always consult your child’s physician for personalised medical advice.

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