Healthcare professionals can encourage physical activity for persons with disabilities

Over 80 percent of adults with disabilities are willing to be more active if their doctor recommends it.

It is a troubling fact that almost half of adults with disabilities participate in no aerobic physical activity, which is an important tool in avoiding chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Physical activity is also known to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, improve mood and increase feelings of well-being. Physicians and other health professionals are uniquely positioned to encourage their patients with disabilities to become involved in physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vital signs, “Adults with disabilities were 82 percent more likely to be physically active if their doctor recommended it.” These medical professionals know their patients and their abilities as well as their limitations, so they can recommend appropriate activities for their patients with disabilities and keep the conversation going at subsequent visits.

There may be barriers for people with disabilities to participate in physical activity. They may not be aware of available programs and/or they may have difficulty getting to those programs. They may not have people in their lives that support and encourage their physical activity. They may also not have access to professionals who can work with them and provide physical activity options that match their abilities. However, according to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, “some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.”

The CDC’s Vital signs suggests that physicians follow these steps to encourage their patients with disabilities, and to help them overcome barriers:

  1. Know the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Adults of all ages and abilities can benefit from some physical activity. Encourage at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate physical activity.
  2. Ask patients with disabilities about their ideas for becoming more physically active. Ask them what they enjoy doing and how much they’re currently doing.
  3. Discuss barriers with them. Some of the barriers may be physical, but there may also be emotional barriers that are keeping them from physical activity.
  4. Recommend physical activity options, based on their abilities. Some options might include brisk walking, wheeling in a wheelchair, swimming laps, water aerobics, using a hand-crank bicycle, horseback riding, seated volleyball, and more!
  5. Refer patients with disabilities to resources and programs that can help them as they begin to be involved in physical activity. Be sure to check with them about their physical activity level at each visit. Michigan State University Extension is a resource in this area and offers programming through Michigan.

Physicians and other health professionals are trusted and listened to by their patients with disabilities. With the right encouragement and support, these individuals can be on the road to better health through physical activity.

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