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  • Writer's pictureKate Bradshaw

Let's Get Physical

Everybody, including people with disabilities, needs physical activity for good health.

About 1 in 5 people in Australia have a disability. A disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.

Disability does not equal poor health, and most adults with disabilities are able to participate in regular physical activity and avoid being inactive. However, nearly half of all adults with disabilities don’t get any aerobic physical activity.

Aerobic physical activity is when the body’s large muscles move in a rhythmic manner for a sustained period of time, thus improving heart and lung fitness. Examples of aerobic activities that might be available to adults with disabilities include walking, water aerobics, swimming, hand-crank bicycling, and various wheelchair athletics.

Physical activity plays an important role in maintaining health, well-being, and quality of life. Physical activity can help control weight, improve mental health, and lower the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

For people with disabilities, it can help improve the ability to do activities of daily living and be self-sufficient. Regular physical activity is good for everyone's health and it can help you:

  • Strengthen your heart

  • Build strong muscles and bones

  • Improve coordination

  • Relieve stress

  • Improve your mood

  • Feel better about yourself

Before you start

Talk to your doctor about the types and amounts of physical activity that are right for you. If you are taking medicine, be sure to find out if it can affect how your body responds to physical activity. It’s also a good idea to talk to a trained exercise professional.

  • Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activities. Choose aerobic activities (activities that make your heart beat faster) like walking fast, wheeling yourself in a wheelchair, swimming or circuit training. Start slowly. Be active for at least 10 minutes at a time and gradually build up to doing 30 minutes at a time.

  • Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic activity on most days of the week. If you can’t get 2 hours and 30 minutes a week, get as much as you can. Do strengthening activities at least 2 days a week. These include activities like crunches (sit-ups), push-ups, or lifting weights. Pick activities that work for your disability. You may need someone to help or watch you do certain strengthening activities.

  • If you can, try working on the muscles that you use less often because of your disability. Find support and stick with it.Take along a friend, especially if you are trying out a new activity. If you don’t meet your physical activity goal, don’t give up. Start again tomorrow.Be active according to your abilities. Remember, some physical activity is better than none!

Healthcare and Disability providers are in a key position to influence physical activity participation among their clients with disabilities. First, adults with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to visit a healthcare provider on a regular basis. In addition, they are more likely to be physically active if their provider recommends it. Here are five easy steps you can follow to encourage people with disabilities to be physically active:

1. Remember that Getting Physical is for Everybody

  • Doctors, Carers and other health professionals should recommend physical activity, as adults of all sizes and abilities can benefit from being physically active.

  • Adults should get at least 2 and 1/2 hours of aerobic physical activity each week at a moderate intensity level.

  • When adults with disabilities struggle to meet the recommended guidelines, it is essential that providers encourage and support people to engage in regular physical activity and avoid being inactive wherever possible.

2. Ask about Physical Activity

We can all play a role in encouraging people to be active and the following questions are a useful starting point to a discussion:

  • How much physical activity are you currently doing each week?

  • How often?

  • How long?

  • At what intensity level?

  • What types of physical activity do you enjoy, now or in the past?

  • How can you add more physical activity to your life?

3. Discuss Barriers to Physical Activity

Adults with disabilities face barriers to getting aerobic physical activity. Discuss the following barriers with your clients to help them find ways to be more active:

  • Knowing about and getting to programs, places, and spaces where they can be physically active;

  • Having social support for physical activity (such as, setting up a buddy system, making contracts with others to complete specified levels of physical activity, or setting up walking groups or other groups to provide friendship and support);

  • Having limited information about accessible facilities and programs; and

  • Finding fitness and health professionals who can provide physical activity options that match their specific abilities.

4. Recommend Physical Activity Options

There are a wide range of physical activity guidelines and your local GP or Fitness Centre can advise on what's best for you and the person you support. We have included some suggestions below as a guide;

  • Engage in the amount and types of physical activity that are right for you and the person you support;

  • Find opportunities to increase regular physical activity in ways that meet your clients needs and abilities;

  • Start slowly, based on their abilities and fitness level (for example, be active for at least 10 minutes at a time, and slowly increase activity over several weeks, if necessary);

  • Include aerobic physical activities that make you breathe harder and your heart beat faster for important health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers;

  • Know that most aerobic physical activity may need to be modified, adapted, or may need additional assistance or equipment;

Inclusion is essential if we want to increase participation rates and encourage children and adults with disabilities to get involved and participate in sport and physical activity. Many councils and groups offer specialised equipment, trained staff and resources to support people to pursue an activity. These groups often provide modified traditional fitness classes and sports activities to enable people to participate and below are a few examples of this;

  • Boccia - A bowls-type target game played at the Paralympics.

  • Goalball - A Paralympics sport developed for players who have a vision impairment.

  • Sitting Volleyball - A Paralympics sport for players for whom standing volleyball may not be an option.

  • Polybat - An accessible version of table tennis, particularly useful for young people who have coordination and control impairments.

  • Table Cricket – a dynamic table version of cricket for players of all abilities, but specifically those with complex or higher support needs.

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