Sport at any age, and for anyone, is good. So there is no category that should face any barriers to finding good health, weight control, muscle improvement – not to mention the prevention of osteoporosis.

However, it seems that people with disability are less likely to take part in regular physical activity than people without disability; yet everybody has similar needs when it comes to improving their health and preventing unnecessary disease. So encouraging engagement in exercise and sport is very important.

Benefits of exercise in general

Sport is part of general exercise termed structured and unstructured programmes. The benefits of participating in structured exercise programmes may vary according to the type of exercise, but in general these programmes have been found to improve the health of adults with learning disabilities.

  • For instance, a 12-week aerobic exercise programme can result in significant improvements in a range of health indicators, including body mass and blood pressure. In addition, an eight-week aquatic exercise programme has been shown to improve balance and endurance.
  • Exercise improves aerobic capacity and muscular strength. In adolescents with learning disabilities, exercise has notably resulted in improvements in agility, power, reaction time and speed.
  • Because people with learning disabilities are at particular risk from being overweight or obese, exercise is of crucial importance. Adolescents with learning disabilities who took part in a 12-week exercise programme – comprising cross-circuit activities for 50 minutes five days a week – achieved reductions in weight, as well as improvements in cardiorespiratory performance, balance, strength and endurance.
  • Psychological wellbeing improves in people with learning disabilities who exercise and/or play sport regularly. There is notable reduction in anxiety, increased self-esteem, and enhanced mood. All of this leads to a better quality of life and greater community participation.

The benefits of sport

Sports for all people leads to better physical health – but is particularly important for those with intellectual disability because it prevents depression and a tendency to apathy with regard to physical exercise.

Sport adds elements of competition, fun and achievement that set exercise routines do not. In particular, sport prevents health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and colon cancer. It improves muscular strength and stamina, and helps to control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.

How a community thinks about people with physical and intellectual disabilities is changed when those people improve their outlook and active behaviour through exercise and sport. It brings a better understanding and sense of togetherness and progress – aspects which are beneficial to relationships and reduce isolation, while improving social skills and wellbeing.

Sport has been shown to increase life satisfaction and confidence, together with a more positive perception of capability and self-identity.

Lowering barriers, raising the bar

 Persons with disabilities may experience lower levels of physical activity than their peers. There are several reasons for this – many related to the fact that the intellectually disabled may live in an assisted community, a situation that may bring about the problems of cost, transport, difficulties in accessing organised activities, and lack of suitable activities within the living environment, etc.

  • These barriers mean that the average ID person may have less control over their choices. It is recommended that care staff be trained to support their charges in gaining increased engagement in physical activity wherever possible.
  • Social factors may play a negative role, and some people with ID may experience bullying, teasing, or discouragement from participating in organised activities. However, in many instances, peers may have a positive and accepting attitude towards the physical activity of people with learning disabilities, providing a much needed boost to confidence.
  • A good way to start sporting participation for an ID candidate may be to elicit the assistance of a private tutor, or join targeted classes, and once confidence has been instilled, enrol the candidate in a mainstream group. In this way, practical constraints can be assessed: the type of exercise/sport that is suitable, the level of activity to be reached, levels of competitiveness, or whether group or team activity is suitable.
  • For ID people to take part in sports they must find it enjoyable; there must be a companionable, positive atmosphere. Fun exercises can be planned ahead, games developed to suit different levels of capability, and opportunities to make events sociable through a partner or group participation.

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.

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