Image of wheelchair athlete on a track

The Importance of Activity for Kids with Physical Disabilities

Cheering fans and screaming athletes are familiar sounds in gymnasiums and fields across the country. From little league baseball to track and field, over 70 percent of children 6 to 12 years old participated in an individual or team sport in 2016. Additionally, nearly 60 percent of high school students play on at least one organized sports team.

There are countless physical, social, and emotional benefits of athletic participation and physical activity reaped by young athletes involved in organized sport. Unfortunately, many students who have the most to gain are among the lowest participants. Children and adolescents with physical disabilities generally participate in substantially less physical activity than their able-bodied peers.

While physical activity benefits all children, those with physical disabilities often have lower levels of cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance along with higher levels of deconditioning and obesity. Regular physical activity has been shown to help control or slow the progression of chronic diseases, increase physical fitness, decrease body fat, and improve overall health and function in this population. Regular activity is crucial for athletes with physical disabilities to maintain muscle strength and flexibility, and can help slow many functional declines associated with disabling conditions.

The benefits of sports participation extend far beyond physical health. Organized sport improves individual self-esteem, promotes inclusion, and supports relationship development. Lessons learned in athletic participation include teamwork, dedication, time management, and sportsmanship and individuals with physical disabilities involved in sport report higher levels of confidence, independence, and quality of life. Within the social circles of adolescence, adaptive sports participation has the opportunity to enhance peer acceptance and support along with a venue for sharing experiences among friends, family, and communities.

Each of these lessons and benefits of physical activity have the potential to carry over beyond adolescence into adulthood as well. Individuals involved in adaptive sports have proven to maintain higher quality of life, higher employment rate, and better overall emotional health. Perhaps most importantly, participation in regular physical activity at a young age has been shown to increase the likelihood of continued physical activity later in life and contribute to maintaining overall health.

The benefits of physical activity in organized sport are universal for all children, including those with physical disabilities. Fortunately, opportunities of participation in competitive sports for athletes with physical disabilities have grown rapidly in recent decades. As the winter Olympics come to a close the Paralympics kick-off with an unpresented amount of televised coverage.

Just as able-bodied athletes train for their sport, disabled athletes should follow a program designed especially for them. To learn more about the tailored resources available at the Adaptive Sports Medicine Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, click here.

Jonathan Napolitano, MD
Jonathan Napolitano, MD, is our Sports Medicine Fellow for 2016-2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Dr. Napolitano grew up playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse. He attended Georgetown University where he competed on the men's lightweight crew team and studied health care management and policy. He returned to Ohio for medical school at the University of Toledo and completed his internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Napolitano's completed his residency in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Loyola University in Chicago, with training in adult and pediatric musculoskeletal and neurologic medicine. During residency, he was actively involved in student education, clinical research and administrative responsibilities in his role as chief resident.Dr. Napolitano’s research interests include the management of back pain and emerging technologies in diagnosis and treatment of tendonopathies.He is an active member of both the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, currently serving as the fellow liaison to the membership committee.

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