exercise for disability

How to exercise right for Down syndrome

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that affects an estimated 13,000 Australians. People living with Down syndrome have some degree of intellectual disability and developmental delay. They often need assistance from family and/or support people and different health professionals to experience the best possible health, function and independence.


Down Syndrome Australia note that people living with an intellectual disability (such as those with Down syndrome) have higher rates of physical and mental health conditions than that of the general population. For example, people with Down syndrome are more likely to have heart defects, low thyroid levels, and overweight/obesity. Many of these physical and mental health conditions and risk factors are treatable, and potentially preventable, with the right lifestyle measures.

If you or someone you love has Down syndrome, regular exercise is an important part of leading a healthy life and reducing yours or their risk of developing a chronic health condition.

Importantly, research has shown regular physical activity can improve muscle strength and aerobic capacity in people with Down syndrome and have a positive impact on cardiovascular disease risk factors.

In addition to improving physical fitness, exercise is known to benefit mental health. This is important because at least 50% of children and adults with Down syndrome will experience a major mental health concern – such as anxiety or depression – during their lifetime.


Every person is unique, so an exercise approach that considers each individual’s needs, goals and preferences is best. That said, a combination of exercises to address cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and balance will be of benefit for most people living with Down syndrome.

Aerobic exercise activities involve continuous movement of large muscle groups to raise the heart and breathing rate. When performed regularly, aerobic exercise helps to build cardiorespiratory fitness. Examples include walking, rowing, swimming, boxing, dancing, cycling and aqua fitness.

Adequate muscular strength is necessary to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs, getting on and off chairs, and opening jars. In other words, strength exercises and training is important for independence! Low muscle tone, or “floppy” muscles, are common in people with Down syndrome, making strength training an important part of any exercise routine.

down syndrome

Strength is built through resistance activities that challenge muscles. When performed regularly, resistance training helps muscles grow larger (to a degree) and stronger. Examples include activities performed with resistance bands, dumbbells, body weight, gym equipment, and even household objects such as tins of food.

Research has shown a combination of aerobic and resistance exercises can have beneficial effects for people with Down syndrome, including improvements in memory, exercise capacity and fitness, and, in young people aged 10-19, an increase in lean muscle mass.

Balance problems are also common in people living with Down syndrome – in fact we know that high falls risk can be a problem for anyone living with an intellectual disability. Balance exercises are designed to train balance on the spot (static balance) and while moving around (dynamic balance) should both be incorporated to help.


The effects of Down syndrome mean that care is required when designing exercise programs for people with the condition. People living with Down syndrome typically have a lower aerobic capacity and peak heart rate than those in the general population, so the usual measures of exercise intensity may need to be modified. Low muscle tone and loose joints can also pose a potential for injury with the wrong types of activity.

Other things that may need to be considered in prescribing exercise for people with Down syndrome include heart defects, vision or hearing issues, and a higher risk of osteoporosis and a rare condition that affects the upper spine.


An ESSA exercise professional will be aware of all these things. Accredited Exercise Physiologists are trained to understand the health effects of conditions such as Down syndrome, and design exercise programs tailored to suit each person’s needs and goals.

They will start your program at an intensity to match your current physical condition and make changes as you progress. They can supervise your exercises to ensure you’re performing them safely and correctly and train your support people to do the same.

Some Accredited Exercise Physiologists have a special interest in supporting people with disability. They will work alongside you, and your support people, to help you achieve optimal health, independence and quality of life.

Click here to find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you.

Expert Contributors: Amanda Semaan and Kara Foscholo, Accredited Exercise Physiologists and Co-Directors of Active Ability