Father and son ride bikes along a bike path

Making Exercise a Family Affair: Parents Boost Accessibility to Physical Exercise for Children with Disabilities

Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities often face barriers to getting the exercise they need for good health. Surprisingly, the biggest obstacles aren’t the physical activities themselves, but rather the overprotectiveness of children’s parents.

According to a recent University of Wisconsin Madison (UWM) study, parents may subconsciously hold children with disabilities back from participating in activities with family and friends. Associate Professor of Kinesiology Luis Columna came to this conclusion after observing parents stepping up to assist their children with visual impairments at a sports camp in Guatemala. They overcame any hesitation about the challenges of their children’s activities by joining them. That experience inspired him to develop a fitness program based on family involvement with the exercise activities.

Connecting parents with children during physical activities

When he returned to UWM, Columna founded the Fit Families program. This program adapts specific types of exercise to individual kids and encourages parents to be involved in their child’s physical health. Parental involvement goes beyond serving only as cheerleaders to assisting as active participants with their children. The activities can range from those targeting mobility and movement to strength-building and coordination.

Parents’ perceptions of their children’s abilities have a huge impact on the limits of what children think they can do. When parents are afraid for their children, their mindset tends to rub off on those children. Essentially, Fit Families teaches parents to give their kids the confidence to set their own intentions.

“[If] you have the intention to do something, most likely you’re going to do it,” Columna said. “If you want to do physical activity [and] you have the intention, you will do it.”

Parents of children with intellectual or developmental disabilities also need support in helping arrange their children’s physical activity. For example, while some parents can tell their children to run around in the backyard, other children may need more direction. Often, parents don’t know how to give their children the tools they need to pursue physical exercise activities, Columna noted.

Improved communication for better outcomes

Columna believes that physical education classes today are missing communication between parents and physical education teachers. The teachers must reach out to parents, just as they would if a student were struggling in math or English, and share resources about the activities they’ll be doing in class. This would give parents the opportunity to break down activities for their kids at home, making gym class a less-daunting place for all students, particularly those with disabilities, Columna said.

The key message is that having a healthy body sets kids up for having a healthy life, especially for those who have disabilities. According to Columna, physical education is just as important as other subjects and should be mandatory for all children—those with disabilities and those without. He cites research that supports the notion that when students are physically active, their grades are higher, behavioral issues are reduced, and they have a more positive learning mindset.

For more information about Dr. Columna’s Fit Family program at the UWM Waisman Center, visit https://www.waisman.wisc.edu. Additional studies on this subject include the following:

  1. “Effects of a Parent-Implemented Physical Activity Intervention in Preschool Children with Developmental Disabilities: A Randomized Controlled Trial”
  • Authors: Tyler K., MacDonald M., and Menear K.
  • Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  • Abstract: This randomized controlled trial investigates the effects of a parent-implemented physical activity intervention in preschool children with developmental disabilities. It assesses the impact of family involvement on the physical activity levels and motor skills of children with disabilities.
  1. “Family-Centered Physical Activity Intervention for Children with Disabilities: A Pilot Study”
  • Authors: Giannotta F., Malavolta C., and Giorda R.
  • Disability and Rehabilitation
  • Abstract: This pilot study evaluates a family-centered physical activity intervention for children with disabilities. It explores the feasibility and effectiveness of involving families in promoting physical activity and improving motor skills in children with disabilities.
  1. “The Impact of Family Involvement on Physical Activity Patterns in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”
  • Authors: Jones R.A., Downing K., and Rinehart N.J.
  • Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  • Abstract: This study examines the impact of family involvement on physical activity patterns in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It investigates the role of family support and participation in promoting physical activity and reducing sedentary behavior in children with ASD.
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