Living with a learning disability shouldn’t prevent anyone from pursuing an active and enjoyable life. However, a learning disability can pose a significant barrier to physical activity as these individuals may have limited or no access to inclusive and accessible facilities. A UK study also suggests that the lack of understanding of the many benefits of exercise can also be a barrier for people with learning disability to exercise regularly.
It’s not surprising then to find out that people with learning disabilities are at an increased risk of being overweight or obese compared to the general population.
In Australia, a study showed that the prevalence of being overweight at 22.5% and obese at 23.8% were higher among people with learning disabilities.
The numbers are closely mirrored in statistics in the UK where the prevalence of obesity and being overweight among adults living with learning disabilities were recorded at 20.7% and 28%, respectively. These are clear indications that obesity is a cause of concern among people with learning disabilities compared to the general population. This prevalence may be attributed to poor diets and low levels of physical activity.
What is a learning disability?
The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) defines learning disability as a lifelong condition of neurological origin that does not respond readily to intensive educational intervention. This is different from learning difficulties which are not recognised as disabilities and may respond to intensive educational intervention.
To further define the term, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke details learning disability as disorders that affect one’s ability to understand or use spoken or written language, accomplish math calculations, do coordinated movements, and direct attention.
One popular question about the topic includes the query ‘Are learning disabilities genetic?’ A study suggests it may stem from changes in the individual’s genetic makeup and that it causes around 30-40% of moderate to severe learning disabilities. Results from the landmark The Human Genome Project put the figures even higher.
Another one: ‘Is ADHD a learning disability?’ Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) involves difficulty in staying focused and giving attention, and hyperactivity and impulsivity that interfere with functioning and development. While it is not considered a learning disability, research shows that a significant number of children with ADHD also have a learning disability, a finding that makes the condition doubly challenging to navigate.
Exercises for people with learning disabilities
According to the National Library of Medicine, several factors contribute to the sedentary lifestyles of people with intellectual and learning disabilities. These include family members, personal factors, and social factors.
In any case, intellectual and learning disabilities shouldn’t prevent anyone from exercising and reaping the benefits of physical activity. Being sedentary puts individuals with learning disabilities at an increased risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, and cholesterol and metabolic syndromes. Adopting an active lifestyle can enhance their strength, balance, aerobic capacity, flexibility, cognition, and overall quality of life.
If the individual prefers exercising on their own, these are excellent choices:
• Walking: A low-impact physical activity that can be done anywhere and requires no special skill
• Running: Like walking, is low impact and can be done anywhere at little to no expense
• Cycling: Great for building cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength in the lower body
• Swimming/aquatic exercises: These have positive effects on physical health as well as mental fitness. Learning how to swim can improve motor coordination and skills. Adaptive swimming lessons and water-based activities are recommended for increased safety in the pool.
• Yoga: This practice can help promote relaxation, improve coordination and balance, as well as enhance body awareness and flexibility.
• Strength training: Using resistance through lifting free weights, body weight, machines, or resistance bands can help build muscle, improve muscular endurance, and enhance bone and muscle strength.
Participating in sports can also be an excellent way to get fit. There are community centres and youth organisations that can provide a venue for adaptive sports such as football, hockey, and baseball.
Probably, the most important thing is to find something that the individual with a learning disability can enjoy doing as that will keep them interested and engaged in the long run.
Consulting an accredited Exercise Professional such as an Exercise Physiologist (EP) before commencing an exercise routine is always a smart first step. An EP can create tailored exercise interventions and programs that best fit the individual’s conditions and needs after a thorough assessment.
Activities for people with learning disabilities
Individuals with intellectual and learning disabilities can greatly benefit from having a creative outlet – activities that can help them express their feelings and what they have in mind.
As people with learning disabilities may experience difficulty in communicating with others, this can turn into frustration. Going to creative classes can help build self-confidence, autonomy, and independence by imparting lessons on how to interact with others and follow instructions:
Dance classes – May help build balance, improve coordination, and offer a good venue for self-expression
Drama, art, and music classes – Provide a great outlet for expressing themselves
Reading and writing exercises – These can help improve literacy, comprehension, and communication abilities.
Life skills training – Classes on learning how to cook or bake can teach individuals with learning disabilities how to organise and be more Independent.
Cognitive exercises – Memory games and crossword puzzles can help enhance cognitive skills such as memory retention and problem-solving.
Meditation – This practice can aid in relaxation and improve focus.
Mencap, a UK-based organisation that works with people living with disabilities, recommends trying a variety of activities to find out what the individual like best. This can also stave off boredom and make engaging in regular physical activities more fun over the long term.
Get support from the experts
Exercise is essential for everyone regardless of functional capacity or health condition. As research shows that people living with learning disabilities may be more vulnerable to leading a sedentary lifestyle, exercise becomes of even more importance.
Consulting an Exercise Physiologist can go a long way toward improving the health of people with learning disabilities through exercise interventions. Feel free to get in touch with our team of Exercise Experts at any of our Allied Health Clinic locations to help you or a loved one with a learning disability get started on regular exercise. Call 1300 090 931 or click this link now.