Developmental Disability and Fitness

Introduction to Achieving A Beneficial Fitness for Persons with Developmental Disabilities

James H. Rimmer, Ph.D

After 23 years of teaching and conducting research in the area of developmental disabilities and physical fitness, little has changed. In the small volume of research that has been completed on the fitness levels of persons with developmental disabilities, study after study has shown that their fitness levels are much lower than those of the general population (Pitetti & Campbell, 1991; Pitetti, Rimmer, & Fernhall, 1993). Their ability to run, jump, swim, climb stairs, lift weights, play golf or do anything that is physical in nature is inferior to the rest of the population. Most individuals with developmental disabilities get very little physical activity and carry high amounts of body fat, particularly women (Rimmer, Braddock, & Fujiura, 1993) and persons with Down syndrome (Rubin, Rimmer, Chicoine, Braddock, & McGuire, 1998). These traits do not develop from their condition, but rather from their lifestyle.

If you look around the general fitness and recreation community, you'll notice that there aren't many people with disabilities, including developmental disabilities, participating in physical activity. How many people with developmental disabilities do you see performing step aerobics in a local health club? Or going for walks after dinner with their friends? Where are they on the starting line of a weekend road race or a benefit walk? Are they hiking in Yellowstone? Skiing in Vail? Playing golf or tennis on the weekends? For the most part, they are conspicuously absent from the physical culture of our society. And as they grow older, it is likely that a greater number of them will fall victim to disease and disability at an earlier rate than the general population (Pitetti & Campbell, 1991).

It is my hope that we will not allow another 23 years to pass without seeing an improvement in fitness among the millions of persons with developmental disabilities. There is a pressing need to convey the message to the community of professionals, staff, and families who work in this field or who have children with developmental disabilities that fitness is not a luxury, but rather an essential prerequisite for maintaining optimal health and well-being throughout the lifespan.

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