Unique World of Adaptive Sports

February 7, 2017   /
Jacqueline King, MS, RDN, CDE, FADA
Tracy Williams, BS, Dominican University, River Forest, IL

Sports are the great equalizer between people with physical disabilities and their able-bodied peers and friends. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 56.7 million people, 19% - 20% of the American population, may be impacted by a physical disability at some point in their life.

People with disabilities derive the same health benefits from exercise as those living without physical disabilities. Adapting exercises and sports so they can participate may take some creativity, but once involved, participants are able to strengthen or build new friendships and also improve their self-esteem while enjoying the health benefits. 

Fitness choices
There are a variety of activity choices that people with and without disabilities can participate in together, and participating with a friend is a good way to make the activity fun and engaging.

Rehabilitation centers may offer adaptive sport choices such as golf, rock climbing, sailing, or cycling. If one prefers a fitness class, there are opportunities there as well. Yoga, wheelchair dance, weightlifting, boxing, Pilates, hiking, water sports, and snow sports can all be adapted to those with disabilities as needed.

Since organized sports or exercise programs may not appeal to all, Ann Flanagan, a physical therapist from Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago suggests contacting a physical, occupational, or recreational therapist for help in identifying and planning suitable activities that can be done alone. Kelly Bonner from the National Center for Health, Physical Activity and Disability adds, “It is important to realize that lack of access to a fitness center should not deter a person with a disability from physical activity. YouTube videos can be a great how-to source, and even without exercise equipment, people can use their body weight to do resistance exercises.” 

Ask questions about accessibility
When considering a fitness center, before signing a contract, it is important for people with disabilities to visit and ask the right questions, to make sure it is a good fit. Tara Egan, physical therapist from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago recommends checking to make sure all areas of the fitness center are accessible. Consider signing up for a short-term trial to assess the facilities and accessibility. In addition, Amanda Hogle, recreational therapist from Shriners Hospital for Children Chicago recommends that a person with a disability ask about a payment plan in case they cannot participate for a few months due to hospitalization or some time in a physical rehabilitation facility. 

People with disabilities should also ensure that they will be able to ask for assistance from a fitness trainer whenever they may need help in transferring from machines and other situations where help is needed. If a fitness trainer is not available for assistance, the person with a physical disability should come with a family member or friend for assistance.

Other questions are provided from a booklet by the National Center for Health, Physical Activity and Disability. Some of these questions include:

  • Does the facility provide an orientation and instructions on how to use equipment?
  • How often is the equipment replaced?
  • Is there cardiovascular equipment that can be operated with the upper body only?
  • Does the cardiovascular equipment, such as with a stationary bike, require a minimum speed to use?
  • How often is equipment cleaned and maintained?
  • Are there showers and changing facilities?
  • Is there a family changing area?
  • Is the staff required to pursue continuing education?
  • What is the turnover rate of the staff?
  • What are the busiest times for the facility?
  • What areas are the most crowded and when?
  • What type of classes does the fitness center provide?
  • Is there a limit on class size?
  • Do instructors know how to adapt classes for particular abilities?
  • How much one-on-one staff interaction will be available?

As with any new experience, people with disabilities should feel comfortable advocating for their needs. If a facility does not accommodate a person who has a disability, that should be a red flag to not sign a contract. 

Safety first
It is important to always be safe when participating in a sport or starting a new fitness program and participants should always check with their health care provider before starting any activity.

Maggie Morrissy, from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago recommends that people with physical disabilities partner with a trainer who specializes in working with people who have physical disabilities. If not possible, look for a trainer who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise or an exercise-related degree, and holds a training certificate from a reputable source, such as from the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Collegiate Scouting Association®. Fitness trainers are familiar with body movements, muscles, and safe training intervals but may not be as familiar with the additional impact that having a disability has on a fitness or sports regimen.

A knowledgeable trainer will be able to adapt exercises to fit individual needs while using general exercise principles and theory to ensure the safety and effectiveness of a new workout experience. When considering a new sport, a local sport representative can give a full picture of what each sport entails so people can understand the potential risks associated with each new sport.

According to Bonner, “There are certain disabilities that require extra precautions. All individuals should work with their doctor to make it safe for them to participate. There are always risks of injury, and some adaptive sports are higher risk than others.” People with injuries such as osteogenesis imperfecta, which is characterized by bones that break easily, should focus on low impact sports, such as swimming, rather than aggressive contact sports.
There are many examples of cardiovascular training for people with disabilities that include hand cycling, walking, wheeling, and swimming. When participating in cardiovascular exercise, consider these helpful tips below:

  • Vary exercise with each workout session
  • Enhance workouts or exercise routines by moving more throughout the day: during lunch, coffee breaks, or around the house during TV commercial breaks
  • “Think tall” to maintain good posture and remember to take deep breaths if in a wheelchair

When participating in strength training, a person with a disability should perform each exercise movement through a complete range of motion. If the goal is to increase muscular endurance, it is important to use lighter weights and more repetitions. In strength training, people with disabilities can use lighter kettle bells, medicine balls, weight machines, free weights or plastic tubing. The focus of functional or flexibility training is to improve range of motion, balance, coordination, and the ability to carry out regular activities of daily living. Flexibility training should be carried after each cardiovascular or strength training session. Every muscle group should be stretched and more time should be spent on tight muscles.

All fitness facilities and programs should work towards being inclusive. For a young child just learning about their body or a new adaptive sport, parents may want to investigate adaptive sports at a local recreation association for people with disabilities. Some children and adults may require extra precaution with sports or fitness depending on their limitations. Education is important to all people who want to be involved in sports. People with disabilities should learn about all of their athletic options.

Fitness trainers and sports instructors should learn how to make fitness goals achievable for everyone no matter their ability. Adaptive sports allow the able-bodied population to develop an acceptance of athletes with disabilities.

Self-confidence and independence
In addition to physical fitness, there are other benefits to adaptive sports and exercise. According to Darlene Kelly, recreational therapist from Shriners Hospital for Children Chicago, “Participation in adaptive physical activities is not only fun and good for overall health; it is a confidence builder and allows for the development of quality friendships.” Building on beneficial skills also helps the person with a disability to develop the inspiration to be more independent.
Success in sports, fitness, and life is enhanced by determination, hard work, and a positive attitude for people with disabilities.

References and recommended reading

Ability Plus website. http://www.abilityplus.org/mission.php. Accessed January 31, 2017.

Adaptive Sports for Kids website. www.adaptivesportsforkids.org. Accessed January 31, 2017.

Disabled Sports website. http://www.disabledsportsusa.org/. Accessed January 31, 2017.

Lastuka A, Cottingham M. The effect of adaptive sports on employment among people with disabilities. Disabil Rehabil. 2015:1-7. doi:10.3109/09638288.2015.1059497.

Troth JL. Adaptive sports open new opportunities. US Army website. https://www.army.mil/article/163740/Adaptive_sports_open_new_opportunities_/. Published March 8, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017.