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Physical Activity

Physical Activity Among People with Disabilities 

There is growing evidence that persons with higher levels of physical fitness have a reduced risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.  This message has been targeted toward the general population for numerous years, but a significant disparity exists between the level of physical activity participation among people with disabilities compared to those without a disability.

  • Data from Healthy People 2010 suggests that 56% of adults with a disability reported no leisure-time physical activity, compared to 36% of people without a disability.
  • According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, only 22% of adults with disabilities (34% without disabilities) engaged in moderate physical activity and only 14% (25% without disabilities) engaged in vigorous physical activity. 
  • According to data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 25.1% of people with a disability reported that they had not engaged in any physical activity in the past 30 days. 

Importance of Physical Activity

People with disabilities are less physically active than people without disabilities, yet are at risk for the same chronic health conditions.  People with disabilities are also at risk for secondary conditions that are related to a primary disability.  Secondary conditions can be medical, social or emotional in nature.  Many of these conditions (fatigue, obesity, social isolation, deconditioning, etc.) can be improved or eliminated with increases in physical activity. 

In addition to prevention of secondary conditions and overall health and well-being, physical activity can be important in the day-to-day life of people with disabilities.  The strength and stamina that is developed by participating in physical activity can help maintain a higher level of independence.  Increases in physical activity may also affect a person's ability to go to school, work, and participate in all aspects of community life.

Being physically active is one of the most important steps that Americans of all ages can take to improve their health. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans provides science-based guidance to help Americans aged 6 and older improve their health through appropriate physical activity. These benefits are even more important if you have a disability, since people with disabilities have a tendency to live less active lifestyles.

The following is a list of Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults with Disabilities from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Adults with disabilities, who are able to, should get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.
  • Adults with disabilities, who are able to, should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or high intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.
  • When adults with disabilities are not able to meet the Guidelines, they should engage in regular physical activity according to their abilities and should avoid inactivity.
  • Adults with disabilities should consult their health-care provider about the amounts and types of physical activity that are appropriate for their abilities.

Also, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Active Children and Adolescents, children and adolescents with disabilities are more likely to be inactive than those without disabilities. Youth with disabilities should work with their health-care provider to understand the types and amounts of physical activity appropriate for them. When possible, children and adolescents with disabilities should meet the Guidelines. When young people are not able to participate in appropriate physical activities to meet the Guidelines, they should be as active as possible and avoid being inactive.

For more information about physical activity guidelines, please visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans or go here for a PDF Version.

Resources to Increase Physical Activity

  • One of the largest sources of information on physical activity and disability is the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability.  This web-based information center contains a searchable database of articles, citations, programs and facilities.  The website also contains numerous articles and video clips on the many areas of physical activity, equipment and exercise guidelines for specific disabilities.
  • Blazesports is a sports and fitness program for children and adults with physical disabilities.  Introduced in 1998, the program has grown quickly and now serves 50 communities in 25 states and the District of Columbia. The Blazesports website contains a list of the Blaze Clubs. 
  • Special Olympics is well known for providing sports and recreation opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, but they also offer initiatives such as Healthy Athletes, that focus on health and fitness. For more information on Healthy Athletes, go the Special Olympics website.
  • "I Can Do It - You Can Do It" is a nation-wide initiative using mentors to encourage physical activity among children and youth with disabilities.  The program was initiated by the DHHS Office on Disability in collboration with the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. 
  • Go4Life, an exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging at NIH, is designed to help older adults fit exercise and physical activity into the daily life. Motivating older adults to become physically active for the first time, return to exercise after a break in their routines, or build more exercise and physical activity into weekly routines are the essential elements of Go4Life.

Many Ways to Move More

Physical activity is often thought of in terms of traditional fitness and exercise in a gym, running, etc.  There is a misconception that people with disabilities who are not able to exercise in the "traditional" manner cannot exercise.  The fact is there are many ways to increase physical activity, and with creativity it is possible to adapt almost any activity.  The factsheet, "Fun and Leisure: Principles for Adpating Activities in Recreation Programs and Settings", describes some of the ways to adapt activities.

jordan Release Dates

Next Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer (CIFT) Webinar series March 18 - April 22, 2015.  Sign up at