Exercise and sports for young people with disability – an occupational therapist’s perspective

Mar 4, 2022 | Not-so-secret therapy diary

Exercise is an essential part of every person’s life, but exercise can be crucial for teenagers and young adults with disabilities. Exercise has been shown to have many benefits for those with disabilities, including increasing daily function, improved movement patterns and strength, stronger bones, increased confidence and improvements in overall mental health and wellbeing. In this blog post, we’ll discuss exercise benefits for teens with disabilities in more detail so that you know how exercise impacts life and how occupational therapists can help to support functional exercise, health and wellbeing goals!

Exercise plays a vital role in promoting and maintaining optimal health for anyone. However, for young people with disabilities, there are additional benefits to getting them engaged in an exercise program. Long-term sustainable habits can assist with maintaining a healthy weight, improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of disability associated chronic disease, and improve their ability to perform activities of daily living. The flow-on effect is likely to increase confidence and independence and boost mental health. 

People with disabilities may be restricted in participation in some community areas because of their particular activity limitation or impairment. They may need additional help from an occupational therapist to overcome these barriers. As occupational therapists, we take a holistic, evidence-based approach; our practice model looks at the person, environment, occupational goal, social-emotional and sensory aspects, and any necessary transactional supports or equipment required to support the person to achieve participation. It is imperative to consider involving an occupational therapist when assisting young people in integrating into the community and participating in “occupations” such as; outdoor exercise, going to the gym, indoor training venues or sports. Generally, this is taken for granted, but many aspects need to be considered to achieve a positive outcome. 

So what’s the occupational therapist role? I’ve been more recently looking at ways occupational therapists can assist young adults in the transition to community-based clubs and programs for long-term sustainable participation. It’s important as occupational therapists that we facilitate this transition so people can immerse themselves successfully and enjoy the activities for the long term. Sports and exercise goals, in particular, should be life-long, and access to these activities should be available to everyone. Occupational therapists come from a strengths-based approach, paying special attention to what the person with the disability can do and working with their strengths to achieve goals. More importantly, occupational therapists are specifically trained to analyse tasks for people with disabilities and learning disorders and work on the foundational and underlying skill sets required to achieve tasks and ultimately hit their functional goals. The aim for us is to support clients in the transition process, become active community members and support them to participate in their activities of daily living. Their goals should be developed in collaboration with the client and their families and purposeful. Our role is to work alongside personal trainers, sports clubs, gyms, exercise physiologists to ensure the people with disabilities are supported, and we are setting them up for long term success. Generally, this type of therapeutic process requires an initial evaluation of the goal, assessment of the environment and clients needs and is delivered by a combination of joint sessions, consultation and follow up periodically or as needed. It’s important to remember that circumstances, health, and needs can change, so keeping the communication lines open is important.  

While there are no specific guidelines for people with disabilities, being physically active every day is essential for all Australians of any age and any ability. In addition to the already mentioned benefits, it can also help with:

  • reduce the risk of, or manage, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • maintain or improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels 
  • reduce the risk of some cancers 
  • prevent unhealthy weight gain as a result of frequent inactivity
  • improve transfers and mobility 
  • improve socialisation
  • strengthen immune systems

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that almost three-quarters of people aged 15 and over with a disability do not do enough physical activity. This compares with about half of those without disabilities. I find this alarming, and from my years of experience working within the disability sector, it is likely to be strongly related to environmental access and equipment, knowledge and fear, and an understanding of how occupational therapists can help facilitate these types of functional goals. Something different or the unknown can cause hesitancy in people. I’m generally a strong advocate for exercise for all people, including people with disabilities and their carers. I would personally like to see more occupational therapists embrace their opportunity to work with people in this area. In recent times, we have seen the introduction of funding support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which includes personal training and exercise-based programs. However, the community’s barriers comprise the unknown of how to include those with disabilities in their programs; that’s where occupational therapists come into the picture. Working alongside an occupational therapist can make all the difference to everyone involved feeling confident and open to accepting new challenges and setting people up for success from the start. Those first steps are important because we want to ensure success is felt and programs are built on sound foundations. 

So we all know the physical benefits, but what about social-emotional. The evidence shows that young people being active every day has many social, emotional and intellectual benefits, including:

  • a chance to have fun with friends and family
  • reduced antisocial behaviour and mood swings
  • stronger cooperation and teamwork skills
  • better self-esteem and confidence and more willing to accept leadership roles
  • lower anxiety and stress and generally happier and more optimistic
  • better concentration, focus and memory
  • healthy growth and development
  • a chance to connect with others in the community

Statistics show that teens and young adults with disabilities often have a lower exercise participation rate than their peers without disabilities which is why we developed our Movement Project. If you are interested in finding out more about how our occupational therapists can help to facilitate a more active lifestyle and include it as one of your goals, speak with your occupational therapist or contact one of our team members for more information on 1300 760 779.