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Increasing Physical Activity for Older Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Senior couple exercises in park

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Aging and Developmental Disabilities

As a service provider to persons with developmental disabilities, you are likely aware that many older persons are now receiving services. This trend toward a longer life for all Americans is also true for consumers with developmental disabilities. Research has shown that many adults with mental retardation are physically inactive. The combination of a low fitness level and health problems associated with aging puts consumers at an increased risk for disease, loss of independence and injury. A sedentary lifestyle is at the heart of this cycle. Following is some information to help consumers work toward a healthier old age and an improved quality of life.

Increasing Physical Activity

The University of Chicago, Center on Aging with Mental Retardation has made some recommendations to begin to address exercise for older persons with developmental disabilities and remind us that improving fitness is pertinent regardless of age or disability. As a provider, you may be able to support consumers to achieve goals to increase activity. Finding ways to make activity fun and fit into a daily routine present challenges. Here are some simple ideas to get started. Consumers should obtain approval from a physician before starting any exercise program. Encourage and assist them to:

  • Increase daily activity throughout the day.
    • Change TV channels manually by getting up and down.
    • Take the stairs and park further away from buildings.
    • Do stretches while TV shows are on commercial breaks.
    • Start walking short distances (five minutes) two or three times a day and increase this gradually.
    • Shoot baskets!
  • Join an organized exercise or sports program such as provided by the YMCA or community recreation centers. This is a fun way to get exercise and meet new people. Be sure this program can meet the needs of the individual.
  • Exercise at least three days a week. An instructor or therapist may be able to recommend areas of concentration such as strength training, cardiovascular exercise or aerobic fitness.
  • Develop plans for activities with consumers that are not sedentary such as bike riding, swimming or mild hiking on days when there is no formal exercise.
  • Find ways to keep fitness fun! Motivation will be a challenge for persons that have been sedentary. Change routines often enough to avoid boredom. Take before and after pictures. Work together with a group of friends who can motivate each other. Develop motivators that add to the fitness program such as a trip to a park for a walk or to the beach for a swim.
  • For consumers who use a wheelchair, encourage participation in activities that use their upper body strength as much as possible. Things like weight lifting and swimming may be appropriate.


Studies have shown that even mild exercise can improve fitness level. The gains from increased activity will result in a safer and healthier life.

Last updated on Tue, 06/15/2010 - 17:01