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Everyone needs a bit of exercise in their lives to remain physically fit and in the pink of health. But exercise can prove especially beneficial to people with physical or mental handicaps. It can be important for different reasons for different people based on their unique needs.
The importance of exercise for people with special needs is going to be a little different from how it will positively impact those who are able-minded and able-bodied.
This Q&A will cover the various advantages of exercise for people with handicaps, ways to modify exercises for individuals with special needs, and how exercise can change the lives of those with disabilities.
What is the importance of physical activity?
Staying active has a myriad of benefits for your physical and mental health. (1) Anyone who exercises can reap the benefits mentioned below, but exercise will take different forms for people with different ability levels.
Someone who has morbid obesity, for example, may need to ease into exercise so as not to shock their nervous system.
The benefits of exercise include:
- Longevity: Physical activity increases life span by easing blood flow through the body along with improving heart and respiratory health.
- Weight loss: Exercising allows you to burn more calories than you consume, which is an essential prerequisite for healthy weight loss. Thus, working out regularly helps you fight obesity and thereby reduce the risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. (2)
- Energy: Staying active taps into your energy source. When you exercise, your heart pumps more blood, which delivers more nutrients and oxygen all over the body. This gives you a shot of energy. The more active you are, the more energy you have for other physical activities.
- Mental health: Exercise is not just good for the body, but it is good for the mind too. It alleviates anxiety, stress, and depression by activating and quelling the nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. (3)
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What is the importance of physical activity in the life of a person with special needs?
All of the benefits as mentioned above also apply to individuals with special needs. However, those with disabilities will reap additional benefits, such as the following:
- Behavioral improvement: Just as exercise can improve mental health, it can also soothe and even prevent emotional outbursts and related behaviors. Calming the nervous system has a number of positive outcomes, especially for people with special needs. (4)
- Rehabilitation: People who have disabilities because they suffered an accident or severe injury can improve their range of motion through physical rehabilitation therapy. With rehabilitation, the disability can become unnoticeable or manageable over time. (5)
- Prevention of muscular atrophy: Individuals who were born with physical disabilities are at risk of developing muscular atrophy. Exercise can prevent this from happening, ensuring a healthy body in more ways than one. (6)
- Neuroplasticity: The brain changes all the time, but something that makes it more likely to change, chemically, is exercise. Through physical activity, anyone (including, of course, people with special needs) can rewire their brains for a healthier makeup.
What extra care should be taken when involving people with special needs in various activities?
Anyone can exercise, but not everyone can exercise the same way. Everybody is different and so are their bodies.
You will be successful as a fitness trainer for individuals with special needs if you can determine each client’s unique skill set and goals and then utilize these insights to create a modified fitness regimen.
- Adaptability during the skills assessment: The first thing you do with a new client is performing a skills assessment test. However, individuals with special needs will need special concessions.
It is important to understand that your client may be perfectly capable of performing an exercise, they just may not understand what you are asking them to do.
- Modify the exercises: It is important to remember that all of your clients can do cardio, strength training, and more. If your client is not physically fit to run, give them another cardiovascular exercise to perform, such as dancing.
- Communicate clearly and listen with compassion: When talking to a person with cognitive disabilities, it is best to get to know them a little before instructing them. You will be able to see how much coaching or explaining they will need.
Never over- or underestimate your client’s ability level or understanding. From there, communicate the instructions essentially, and then listen to your client with compassion.
What exercises can benefit people with autism?
Any exercise can benefit people with autism, but sensory exercises usually work well to keep them engaged in physical activity.
Hiking is a great exercise for those with autism because it offers stimulation in nearly all four senses:
- Visually through the scenery
- Auditorily through the sounds of nature
- Olfactorily through the scent of dirt and dust
- Through touch
Swimming and exercising with lighted equipment can also be great way to engage people with autism.
Are regular gyms suited for people with special needs?
Yes! Personal trainers can meet the person with special needs at traditional gyms. Open spaces with padded floors are great for floor exercises.
As long as an individual has the physical ability to run, then they should also be able to use equipment such as treadmills, stationary bikes, and ellipticals.
If the person has trouble with any workout machines, simply avoid them and focus on what they can do.
Can regular workout programs be suitable for people with special needs?
That will depend on each person’s physical capabilities. A regular workout program would generally include a cardio segment, a strength-training segment that focuses on one body part, and then a cool down.
People with special needs can complete all of these types of exercises, and many will just need modifications and guidance. That’s where personal trainers come in!
What special games or events can be conducted for people with special needs?
Any of them! The Special Olympics, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are lots of other activities that would be suited for individuals with special needs.
For example, Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine event is a prom night for teenagers with special needs, which involves dancing, a sneaky and fun way to get teens to exercise.
Children and adults with special needs can play sports, ride bikes, go swimming, dance, and do almost anything else able-bodied and able-minded people can do. They may need modifications, but that’s no reason to exclude them!
How important is physical activity for children with autism and other disabilities?
Very important! Children with special needs are especially susceptible to obesity.
Caregivers often give in to the wants of their children with special needs, which often involve seeking dopamine rushes through high-calorie foods and sedentary activities such as watching TV and playing video games all day.
Caregivers may allow these activities due to feelings of guilt that they are not doing enough for their child or because they do not have enough help at home.
How can parents inculcate the practice of physical activity in kids with special needs?
Very easily! Many physical activities can be turned into games for kids.
Dancing, swimming, playing tag, tickle fights, red rover — all of these can elevate the heart rate and respiratory rate and help your child break a sweat while having fun. Jumping rope, playing hopscotch, and playing catch are also great activities.
But the best way parents can inculcate the practice of physical activity in kids with special needs is to be physically active themselves. Kids want to do what their parents are doing. Set a good example for them.
How do physical activities bring about mental improvement in adults with special needs?
Neuroplasticity is a process wherein the brain undergoes chemical transformation due to physical activity.
Each time an individual (whether with special needs or not) exercises, their brain is being rewired. Not only will their anxiety be quelled, but their memory retention and spatial awareness will also improve.
What sports are feasible for people suffering from autism?
The answer to this question depends on the individual. Autism exists on a spectrum, so there can be some people with autism who are completely independent, while there are others who need full-time care.
Independent people with autism will be able to play any sport that interests them, whereas those with severe autism will need to play sports that offer modifications and concessions exclusively.
Do people with disabilities need special exercise equipment?
People with severe disabilities may benefit from special exercise equipment. There are several wheelchair workout kits and machines that help those with limited mobility.
There are also dumbbells with lights, vestibular swings, and other devices to look into. Individuals with autism may feel more interested in working out if the equipment satisfies their sensory needs.
Do people with disabilities require a customized fitness regimen that addresses their specific needs?
Yes, but each segment of the fitness regimen can mirror the different segments of a traditional fitness regimen. For example, regardless of ability level, there will be a cardio segment, a leg segment, an ab segment, etc.
About Daniel Stein, NASM-SST-CPT: Daniel is a certified personal trainer through NASM, NFPT, and ACSM. He also got certified as an ACSM Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer and as a Certified Autism Trainer, which allows him to train individuals with mental and physical disabilities.
Daniel is the founder of Special Strong, which provides adapted fitness for special needs children, adolescents, and adults with autism, Down Syndrome, and other disabilities.