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Increasing Physical Activity for Adults with a Disability

The health benefits of regular physical activity participation (including both aerobic and muscle strengthening) are well known and encouraged for everyone across the lifespan.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans provide detailed prescriptions for children and adolescents, adults, and older adults. Additional physical activity guidance for adults with disabilities are also included and highlight the health benefits for this underserved population. Despite these guidelines availability, health disparities among adults with disabilities continue to increase. The purpose of this ACSM brochure is to highlight meaningful health facts and activity barriers facing adults with disabilities. Several strategies and ideas to overcome these barriers are recommended.

What Do We Know About Adults with Disabilities and Their Physical Activity Participation?

• One in five adults or over 53 million people in the United States have a disability
• 34% of adults with disabilities report 14 or more physically unhealthy days in the past 30 days compared to only 5% for adults without disabilities
• Obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 58% higher than for adults without disabilities
• 38% of adults with disabilities report participating in sufficient aerobic physical activity compared to 54% of adults without disabilities
• Only 14% of adults with disabilities meet both aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines for good health compared to 23% of adults without disabilities

Along with the alarming statistics above, adults with disabilities find themselves more susceptible to poor health due to a rise in secondary conditions that are not a direct result of the primary conditions. These secondary conditions arise from barriers that influence adults with disabilities’ daily interaction with the environment (including others with/without disabilities). Barriers are defined as obstacles individuals face when participating in physical activity.

Barriers to Physical Activity Participation Among Adults with Disabilities Include:

• Economic Issues
• Professional Knowledge, Training, and Education
• Perceptions and Attitudes of Adults without Disabilities, including Professionals
• Non-Inclusive Policies and Procedures at the Facility and Community Level
• Availability of Resources

Disability is not a health condition itself, but often viewed as limitations in the context of the community and society in which the person lives. However, there are opportunities to improve physical activity participation among adults with physical disabilities. These efforts will require multiple stakeholders to help make local environments more inclusive for everyone.

Given the complexities inherent with individuals with disabilities’ engagement with others and their community, an interactional perspective is an effective approach for overcoming typical barriers, thereby increasing physical activity opportunities for individuals with disabilities living in our communities. This perspective allows for engagement at the individual level, social and professional level and community level. The included suggestions that follow highlight the role of multiple stakeholders needed to ensure increased physical activity for individuals with disabilities.

Individual with Disabilities

• To overcome policy barriers, determine the inclusiveness of physical activity programming of interest (i.e. utilize the Accessibility Instruments Measuring Fitness and Recreation Environments Manual [AIMFREE] to determine how accessible fitness and swimming facilities are to your ability level). Access manuals here.
• To overcome training and education barriers, seek out professionals with experience providing physical activity programming for individuals with disabilities (e.g. Professionals should have experience with Adapted Physical Activity, Disability Sports, be a Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer, or be a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist.
• To overcome resource barriers, connect with a disability support group network (consider local hospital or community, state, and/or networks established on social media).

Family and Allied Health Professionals

• To overcome attitudinal barriers, family members of adults with disabilities should be supportive of efforts to improve their loved one’s health. Consider inclusive physical activities that can be done together and/or in small groups (e.g. tandem cycling, canoeing, attending a fitness class).
• To overcome economic barriers, Allied Health Professionals should be aware of their program offerings and be willing to accommodate based on individual ability levels and equipment accessibility (i.e. utilize the AIMFREE to determine how accessible your fitness and swimming facilities are for individuals with disabilities or incorporate the “universal design” concept that increases the usability of your facility for the broader population).
• To overcome resource barriers, family members should be prepared to advocate on behalf of their loved ones for greater access to available physical activity programming in their local communities. Allied Health Professionals should be aware of the needs of the greater community and plan physical activity programs that are inclusive from the outset.

Community Involvement

• To overcome policy barriers, local communities should ensure that public parks, public recreation access, and businesses that provide physical activity opportunities are abiding by the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important piece of civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination against, or segregation of, people with disabilities in all activities, programs, or services––including fitness and recreational related.
• To overcome economic barriers, physical activity businesses should recognize adults with disabilities as untapped clientele deserving of considerable marketing efforts. Given that adults with disabilities typically don’t engage in these opportunities alone, additional family members would also be consumers of these services.
• To overcome resource barriers, local communities and physical activity businesses need to ensure marketing efforts reflect a larger representation of the population they serve. These marketing efforts should include print media, commercial media, and social media to increase its reach to individuals with disabilities.

Download Increasing Physical Activity for Adults with a Disability here.

This brochure was created and updated by Marquell Johnson, Ph.D., CSCS and is a product of ACSM’s Consumer Information Committee