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Exercise Is Healthy Option For Kids With Developmental Disabilities

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Group exercise programs, treadmill training and horseback riding can be healthy choices for children with developmental disabilities, a new review of studies concludes.

With these kinds of activities, children with disorders such as autism, mental retardation and cerebral palsy can improve their coordination and aerobic fitness, according to research analyzed by Connie Johnson, PT, a physical therapist with the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

The findings are encouraging, since studies show that children with developmental disabilities tend to be less fit than their peers. In many cases, the children lack the resources and community support that would encourage them to be more active, Johnson said.

Children and adults with disabilities "can ill afford to have a downturn in health and yet when told by their doctor to exercise or lose weight, they are rarely — if ever — given the resources or knowledge to do so," said James Rimmer, Ph.D., director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.

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However, "parents may be more likely to provide their children with opportunities for physical activity if the specific potential benefits for their children are proven," said Johnson, whose review appears in the January-February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Johnson analyzed 14 studies and three other evidence reviews to determine how youth with developmental disabilities might benefit from physical activity. The strongest evidence of benefits came from studies of group exercise, therapeutic horseback riding and treadmill workouts. Skiing and swimming programs might also be beneficial, but the evidence from those programs was not as strong, she concluded.

As other studies have suggested, however, the children all found "some level of enjoyment, satisfaction or physical benefit from the activities," Johnson said.

Only two studies reported any problems with the exercise programs, including one study of children with severe cerebral palsy where therapeutic horseback riding raised some heart rates above the healthy levels recommended for all children by the American Heart Association.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developmental disabilities affect nearly 17 percent of children under age 18 in the United States.