Effective strategies to promote physical activity among individuals with intellectual disabilities

What is intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability is an umbrella term that refers to a neurological condition that substantially limits and restricts learning behaviours and intellectual functioning. This includes conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome, Prader Willi syndrome, etc.

  • ID affects approximately 3% of the Australian population.
  • People living with ID are less likely than their peers to be physically active and typically engage in high levels of sedentary behaviour, which increases the risk of developing secondary health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.


Why is exercise so important?

Exercise can protect against secondary health conditions, and lead to improvements in cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, quality of life, anxiety and depression, maladaptive behaviours and weight management.

If we address the individual barriers and facilitators of physical activity, effective strategies can be established to promote physical activity among those with intellectual disabilities.

What has research shown us so far?

  1. We all have barriers and obstacles that get in the way of changing our behaviour. This might include lack of interest, poor motivation, transport and the financial costs associated with engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviours. These are the same for people with intellectual disabilities, who may also experience cognitive and intellectual barriers, which may include cognitive processing delays, behavioural issues and health concerns
  2. Strategies need to be fun and invite active and engaging participation
  3. Education for the caregivers and staff is essential in maintaining good levels of physical activity for the ID clients. One study showed that only 1 in 2 caregivers intended to promote physical activity to their intellectual disability clients – this low rate is due to lack of access to transport and finances, beliefs of the ID client’s ability, lack of daytime activities and health difficulties.
  4. Empowering the staff and caregivers to be more confident and in control of supporting physical activity will be a great indicator that physical activity will be maintained and supported for the clients.
  5. Exercises need to be individualised and tailored to the person’s ability, not what will give them the quickest results.


Tips on getting started:

  • Consult an Accredited Exercise Physiologist or exercise professional about the benefits of exercise and about an individualised exercise program for those you know and love with intellectual disabilities
  • See for yourself what works – whether a group or individual setting suits them, which type of equipment they enjoy the most. Be creative!
  • Something is better than nothing. Take opportunities to get up and enjoy moving around!