Exercising for people with intellectual disabilities

Innocent Choga Fitness Column
Last week we discussed the launch of the unified wellness and fitness clubs by the Special Olympics Zimbabwe .

We indicated that the programme involves individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities, but we specifically highlighted the need to exercise for individuals living with intellectual disabilities.

According to Mr John Muringani , the National Sports Director of the Special Olympics Zimbabwe, intellectual disabilities and mental challenges are two different things. Intellectual disabilities are something we are born with and there is no cure. Mental challenges can come along the way through various causes and remedy is possible in certain cases.

This week we will discuss these various levels of intellectual disabilities and we will analyse the possibility of exercising at these different levels as well as the activities that are suitable in each case.

Experts say intellectually disabled individuals with an intelligent quotient (IQ) ranging in between 75 and 50 are capable of learning and therefore can be educated. Those who range between 49 and 30 can be trained and those who range from 29 and below are totally dependent.

According to experts some intellectually disabled individuals lack most, if not all, components of physical fitness. Therefore a comprehensive developmental programme that covers all fitness components would be ideal for such individuals. Some also live with multiple disabilities. They may also have physical disabilities. Poor postures, lack of co-ordination of body movements and lack of balance are very common.

Studies also revealed that intellectually disabled children fared lower in strength than the children without disability of the same ages. They also scored lower in endurance, running speed, agility, reaction time, and flexibility.

Although generally they score lower than their peers without disabilities, experts say they must be given the opportunity to participate in group activities. Playing with their peers in inclusion games will help them acquire adequate motor skills and increase their physical fitness. This will also help them to progress and grow socially and emotionally.

Research has also shown that mentally challenged individuals often feel inferior and tend to regard their physical abilities with disdain; they view their talents as valueless. This is usually the case in environments where they encounter discouraging remarks. This results in them withdrawing from participating in the activities they are talented in. Regression follows as they lose their skills and the fitness components used in their areas of ability. One should either “use it or lose it”.

The more they remain inactive the more their muscles degenerate, and for some the chances of accumulating fat cells and becoming obese are high.

For others this will result in an extreme slender look. However, in both cases they experience weakness due loss of muscles and these body compositions bring with them unhealthy implications.

The intellectually disabled will do well and excel if they exercise in appropriate environment doing suitable activities. Some may require special attention. The totally dependent will require one- on- one training with the instructor, but others may even participate and excel in the mainstream. This varies according to skills and the degree of disability.

Some individuals are said to be very sensitive and will react negatively to reprimands and harsh instructions as is what usually occurs in team sports. They will totally withdraw from activities. For such persons it is appropriate to start with individual sports, although team sports have their advantages.

Team sports are beneficial, not only in physical fitness aspects, but they are also entertaining and recreational. The socialising values and societal approval in team sports provide them with personal satisfaction. Competition may be good depending on their emotional fitness levels. To those who are aggressive and sensitive it may promote undesirable behaviour. This will also result in loss of interest in sport.

A variety of equipment is necessary for each specific activity because the idea of playing with machines is enticing. Those living with multiple disabilities like poor posture will benefit from strength activities like weights and the pulleys. Those with higher IQ and good co-ordination can safely use both free weights and machines. Pulleys will safely help particularly those in the lower IQ range with poor co-ordination because the weights are fixed on the machine and movement is controlled.

Machines will assist in the co-ordination of movements .Free weights greatly require co-ordination or else unbalanced movements will result in injuries.

Strength activities have been found to instil confidence and the acknowledgement of exercise. As the physique changes and becomes muscular just like every other youth they tend to get inspired by the results and wish to continue exercising.

Exercise interest can also be sustained through the application of singing or playing music during activities. Eurhythmic activities, that is, dance moves done in rhythm to accompanying musical sounds have a greater appeal to the intellectually challenged. Play a song for them and they will respond favourably just like everyone else.

Just as blowing the brass instruments is used as therapy for the chest, singing is also used as therapy for stuttering. Dancing helps improve co-ordination of body movements and balance. Accompanied walks will improve endurance for those who may have difficulties in engaging in any other form of exercise.

Muringani had an interesting true story about of a boy called Aaron Banda from a village in Malawi. Aaron had intellectual disability and his mother was a single parent .She had a challenge of looking after Aaron and fending for Aaron and his siblings. She had to resort to tying up Aaron as she worked.

Though this act was not nice because she was putting him on a leash , this was done out of love because she was scared Aaron would wander away and she would never find him. She had to work and all the children did not have time for Aaron, in fact no one in the community cared about Aaron. When Special Olympics Malawi had gone for an outreach programme in that area, word got to their ears that there was such a child being treated that way. They bought him a proper leather soccer ball which became his first friend.

The other children now wanted to play Aaron’s ball and to do so they had to befriend Aaron. In the end Aaron had many friends who grew up to appreciate him the way he was. His mother could now do her chores without worrying about Aaron.

There is also a story about a young boy intellectually disabled teenager who had multiple disabilities. He had physical disability, he could not move his lower body. His parents tried by all means to engage him in physical activities but he was not interested, he did not want to take part in any physical activities. They would frequently have him lie in a prone position to avoid bed sores.

They resorted to hiring a trainer who after putting him through various exercises tests, prescribed weight training. The young man made significant gains and became aware of his body to such an extent that he could turn his stiff neck around to observe how his back was responding. He is reported to be still attached to the physical activity.

These two stories show that at times we need to consult other people who can help to come up with better solutions to assist in prescribing physical activities. The Special Olympics Malawi used sport and inclusion to solve Aaron’s problem. We also have to respect the individual’s preference when it comes to the selection of physical activities. Finally, it is necessary to always appreciate and celebrate any small feats achieved during the exercise programmes to encourage continuity .Everybody loves positive feedback.

Innocent Choga is a six time National Bodybuilding Champion with international experience. He is studying for a science degree in Physical Education and Sport. Email:innocentfchoga@gmail.com

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