Exercise for Developmental Delay

Developmental delay (DD) is a condition where children take longer than expected to learn skills like sitting, crawling, walking and talking (known as developmental milestones). Developmental delay can be caused by various reasons, including genetic conditions, premature birth, and infection or illness after birth. It can also be hard to recognise because children all develop at different rates.

Children can have delayed development in one or more areas, including motor (movement) skills, communication, social skills and daily living activities. Children under the age of five who have delayed development in two areas or more may be diagnosed with global developmental delay (GDD). Some children with DD end up catching up to their peers. Early developmental delay can also suggest that a child may have a disability.

Children with DD may need support from various health professionals, including Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs), to help optimise their development, independence and quality of life.


Developmental delay often affect’s a child’s physical function, including their muscle tone, balance, posture and coordination. This can lead to difficulties with everyday things like walking, running, sitting up in a chair, and using their hands. In turn, this can affect a child’s independence and ability to take part in activities like childcare, school, and sport.

For children with DD, exercise can help to improve their physical function, independence, and ability to participate in their families and communities.

Exercise is essential for achieving good physical and mental health and lowering chronic disease risk. This is especially important for children with disability, who are at higher risk of experiencing poor health and many illnesses.

Research has shown the value of exercise for kids with DD. In one paper, researchers analysed results from 17 studies exploring whether physical activity (PA) can benefit children and youth with developmental disabilities. They found various types of PA (including group exercise programs, treadmill training, and aquatic exercise programs) could improve gross motor skills and aerobic capacity.

In another study, 52 children and adolescents with a disability (or chronic illness) took part in six months of graded exercise training. They achieved significant improvements in fitness, muscle strength, walking capacity, and health-related quality of life measures.

Research has also shown that children and youth with a disability who participate in sport at least twice per week have better psychological and social wellbeing than those who don’t.


Every child with DD is different. One child may have profound movement and communication challenges that significantly affect their function, while another may have mild coordination and balance problems. Therefore, the best type of exercise will depend on each child’s needs and goals.

As experts in prescribing exercise for people with disability and health issues, AEPs can design a tailored program to suit your child’s unique circumstances. The program will include a variety of exercises to address specific concerns.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic activities like walking, swimming, and cycling (or anything that makes the heart beat faster) help keep the heart, lungs and blood vessels healthy and support healthy weight. Aerobic exercise also triggers the release of hormones that help you feel good.

Resistance (strength) training

Children with DD may have weak or ‘floppy’ muscles, which can cause problems with motor skill development, mobility, co-ordination, balance and posture. Resistance training can help to improve  muscle strength, thereby improving functional ability.

Balance training

Some children with DD have trouble with balance, especially if they have low muscle tone or weakness in the leg and trunk muscles. Along with strength exercises, your AEP might prescribe  specific balance training activities.


Children with DD sometimes have tight or still muscles. Stretching exercises can help to improve flexibility and prevent contractures (shortening and stiffness).

Co-ordination training

Children with DD may have difficulties with body coordination and certain movement patterns, such as moving the opposite arm and leg. Your AEP can design exercises to help with this.

Training support people

Young children with DD often need support from their caregivers to complete an exercise program, which will often be play-based. Your AEP can help you find fun ways to help your child get the movement and activity they need to reach their goals.


Children with DD can have a wide range of needs – from mild to complex and profound. For example, they may have mobility limitations or impaired vision or hearing. They may have other health conditions, such as heart, lung, gut or nervous system problems.

An Accredited Exercise Physiologist will consider all these when they assess and plan a program for your child. The program will focus on identifying and achieving goals that are important to your child and family and can be updated as your child makes progress. Your AEP can support you to make movement and activity a fun part of your child’s everyday life.

Click here to find an exercise physiologist near you.

Written by Amanda Semaan and Kara Foscholo. Amanda and Kara are Accredited Exercise Physiologists and Co-Directors of Active Ability, whose mission is to support people with disability to achieve optimal independence, health and quality of life.