Cover Story

Gary Siperstein, PhD, knows firsthand the uplifting effects of sports and exercise on people with intellectual disabilities and their families. The University of Massachusetts Boston psychologist has seen parents of children with such conditions as Down syndrome and autism taken aback by how physically capable their kids become after participating in sports, he says.

"My husband, for the first time, got to see what J. can achieve," responded one mother to a questionnaire after her child attended a sports camp run by Siperstein. "He was so surprised at what [his son] could do."

Another wrote: "He did all the things out there that any boy would do on a basketball court. I have changed my expectations about my child."

Not only can sports and exercise inspire parental pride, they also improve social and motor skills among children with intellectual disabilities and inspire respect from others.

And regular physical activity is especially important for people with intellectual disabilities, who are more sedentary than people in the general population, say psychologists. Part of the problem is they're often discouraged from being too active, says Georgia Frey, a kinesiologist at Indiana University in Bloomington. "'Don't push yourself too hard,' you'll hear people tell them," she says. "It's basically well-meaning patronization."

Also, many people are too ready to give up on their health, she adds. "People think, they're already sick, so why bother preventing further health issues?"

The result is that people with intellectual disabilities are undergoing something of a health crisis in the United States. A 2006 review in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews by University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Jim Rimmer, PhD, suggests that people with intellectual disabilities are about 20 percent more likely to be overweight and 30 percent more likely to be obese than people in the general population (Vol. 12, No. 1).

Getting active

Put simply, people with intellectual disabilities face hurdles to exercise that others don't, says Rimmer, director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability. For instance, simply going to the gym can be challenging when they don't understand gym etiquette and regular patrons and staff don't know how to react. To address this problem, the center is developing a certification program to train people who work at fitness centers on how to help people with intellectual disabilities conduct their workouts. The group is also adapting fitness and sports equipment for people with disabilities. For example, they've developed a pectoral "fly machine" that accommodates wheelchairs, and they've designed basketballs with jingle bells inside them to help visually impaired players.

"Our ultimate goal is to use technology to make exercise more accessible and more enjoyable," Rimmer says.

But even when people with intellectual disabilities make it into the gym, some might not be sufficiently motivated to exercise. A team of researchers from Israel hopes to fix that with video games. Meir Lotan, a physical therapist at Judea and Samara College in Ariel, Israel, and colleagues are investigating the use of virtual reality environments to encourage people with intellectual disabilities to exercise regularly and more intensely. The team's most recent study, in press in Research in Developmental Disabilities, found that people with mild-to-moderate disabilities who play virtual games while they exercise--such as virtually keeping a soccer ball in the air--seem more engaged in the exercise. A number of fitness tests proved the point: The exercisers got a better workout.

Friends on the field

Of course, physical activity offers more than better fitness to children with intellectual disabilities: It can also teach them social skills, says Siperstein.

His center hosts an annual four-week camp at the University of Massachusetts Boston where children age 8 to 12 with and without intellectual disabilities participate in soccer, basketball, swimming and more. Camp Shriver, named after Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, "focuses on teamwork and sportsmanship, not winning and losing," Siperstein says.

He uses sports as a platform to teach life skills. Right now, for example, he and his colleagues are looking at whether practice paying attention during a sporting game increases these children's attention spans while reading. Anecdotally, Siperstein expects this to be the case, but he hopes research will prove him right.

Playing sports also allows children with intellectual disabilities to build friendships, says Purdue University sport psychologist Meghan McDonough, PhD. In her research with Special Olympics athletes, McDonough has found that a common reason for participating in sports is to make friends, which is the same answer usually given by children in the general population (Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2). They still like competing and play to win, she explains, but the socialization is often the most important thing.

"For these populations, it's sometimes hard for them to find and maintain peer groups," she says. "But sports teams are ready-made peer groups."

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Sports don't just increase self-respect among people with intellectual disabilities, they increase others' respect for them, too. That's why half of Camp Shriver teams are made up of children with intellectual disabilities, and half with no disabilities. The normally developing children benefit just as much as the children with intellectual disabilities, Siperstein says.

In a paper submitted to Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, he describes how after four weeks of sports camp, 92 percent of children without disabilities claimed they had made a new friend with intellectual disabilities. Interestingly, there seemed to be a correlation between sports skill and a kid's popularity among other campers for children both with and without disabilities. Sports bridged the gap between these kids, Siperstein says.

He adds that most people don't realize that 85 percent of people with intellectual disabilities are only mildly impaired. That means that the vast majority of people with mental and developmental disabilities have the ability to compete in sporting events at near-normal levels.

"When people see these athletes," says Siperstein, "they're always impressed by their effort, their stamina and their ability. They start seeing them as competent."