Exercise Aids Mobility for Individuals with Down Syndrome 

Regular exercise is beneficial for nearly every young person with special needs to maintain good health. However, many children with Down syndrome are physically inactive thereby increasing their risk for heart attacks and strokes, reduced aerobic capacities, and weak muscles. These factors may affect gross motor skills, leading to difficulty walking, running, swimming, and other mobility related activities. 

In a study titled, “The health benefits of exercise therapy for patients with Down syndrome: A systematic review,”1 researchers found that “Clinical evidence has indicated that regular exercise benefits the health status of PWDS [patients with Down syndrome] with regard to improving their body composition, aerobic capacity, muscle strength, proprioception and postural stability. The benefits of augmented aerobic work capacity and body composition help to lower the cardiometabolic risk profile of PWDS.” According to Harvard Health Publishing2, cardiometabolic health refers to a combination of risk factors for heart attack and stroke, including body mass index, blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. 

That said, the researchers concluded that additional randomized, controlled trials are necessary to better understand the effect of exercise therapy and the best types of exercises to use with patients. For example, exercises include circuit training, swimming, resistance training, and plyometric drills (exercises that focus on speed and force, such as basketball and soccer). The level of vigorous exercise likely would be determined on an individual basis due to differences in various patients’ health and fitness. 

This conclusion was similar to that of another study with adults titled, “Effects of therapeutic exercise on the motor function of adults with Down syndrome: a systematic review and meta‑analysis.” 3 The researchers found that combined exercise “increased muscle strength both in the upper limbs and lower limbs. Aerobic exercise improved spatiotemporal gait [such as walking movements] parameters. Aerobic exercise showed significant improvements in dynamic balance while combined exercise significantly increased dynamic [moving] and static [stationary] balance.” Although there was uncertainty about reliable evidence of these benefits, the researchers concluded that “therapeutic exercise could be effective in improving muscle strength and gait functionality.” 

The takeaway 

More study is needed to verify the specific benefits and accepted therapeutic methods used to improve the mobility for children with Down syndrome. In the meantime, pediatric therapists typically encourage physical activities that engage these children, to improve their general health, enhance their fitness, and help to prevent cardiovascular disease later in life. 

1 Paul Y, Ellapen TJ, Barnard M, Hammill HV, Swanepoel M. “The health benefits of exercise therapy for patients with Down syndrome: A systematic review.” African Journal of Disability. 2019 Oct 23; 8:576. doi: 10.4102/ajod.v8i0.576. PMID: 31745461; PMCID: PMC6852506. https://ajod.org/index.php/ajod/article/view/576 

2 Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-good-is-your-cardiometabolic-health-and-what-is-that-anyway-202208182803  

3 Méndez-Martínez, M., Rodríguez-Grande, EI. “Effects of therapeutic exercise on the motor function of adults with Down syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Scientific Reports 13, 21962 (2023), a publication of the Nature Portfolio. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-48179-1. Published11 December 2023. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-48179-1 

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-023-48179-1

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