Physical & Psychological Benefits

Having an intellectual or physical disability can have crippling psychological and physical consequences. People with disabilities often get defined by their disability and assumptions are created by others regarding their abilities. When any individual’s capabilities are questioned and people doubt their abilities, there are harmful effects. People with disabilities are just like anyone else who wants to work out and reap the benefits of physical exercise; putting people down for working out with a disability can have serious consequences to their health and it is important we change that narrative and promote physical activity within the disabled community.

Exercise and physical activity for people with disabilities provide many physical and psychological benefits, and these benefits can drastically improve the well-being of people with disabilities and decrease the likelihood of secondary health conditions. Physical activity and healthy lifestyle behaviors can decrease secondary health conditions such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, and depression. Because many people with disabilities live sedentary lifestyles and watch television at a much higher rate that people who do not have a disability, creating encouraging and accommodating physical activity opportunities that allow for people with disabilities to prove their strength and determination, while also interacting with people who may have similar conditions is vital.

In the research article “Perceived benefits and barriers to exercise among persons with physical disabilities or chronic health conditions within action or maintenance stages of exercise” by Laurie A. Malone, J.P. Barfield, and Joel D. Brasher, the authors point to the danger of inactivity in people with disabilities. “Inactivity, specifically, has been cited as a major contributing factor in deteriorating aerobic capacity, muscular fitness, and flexibility, ultimately restricting function independence and increasing risk for chronic disease complications” (Malone, L. A., Barfield, J. P., & Brasher, J. D., pg. 255). To determine the greatest benefits to physical exercise for people with disabilities, the three researchers worked with a health and wellness facility that offers fitness, recreation, and sport programs for people with disabilities. The researchers found participants and distributed the Exercise Benefits & Barriers Scale. Neuromuscular, orthopedic, cardiovascular/pulmonary, and multiple conditions were the four determined groups. Next, the physical and psychological benefits from each disability/chronic health group were determined. Individuals with a neuromuscular disability determined the greatest physical benefits to be increased muscle strength and increased level of physical fitness. Those with an orthopedic disability found that exercise increased their level of physical fitness, improved functioning of their cardiovascular system, and improved their flexibility; the psychological benefits of exercise included improved mental health, a sense of personal accomplishment, and feelings of improved well-being. For people with a cardiovascular or pulmonary condition, the greatest physical benefit to exercise was an increased level of physical fitness and improved functioning of their cardiovascular system. Individuals with multiple conditions found that exercise increased their stamina, improved their flexibility, and improved their physical endurance.

While the research done by Malone, Barfield, and Brasher focused more on the physical benefits of exercise, the research article “Physical exercise and psychological well-being among people with chronic illness and disability: a grounded approach” done by Rodger Graham, John Kremer, and Garry Wheeler focuses more on the psychological benefits of physical activity. The researchers conducted a study of eleven participants with a physical disability over a sixth month period with seated physical activity. Three interviews were conducted throughout the process of the athletic program to gauge the individual’s relationship with exercise. The researchers found that exercise served to transform negative feelings and emotions into positive experiences and improve moods. Exercise also served to enhance an individual’s opinion of themselves and encouraged a sense of capability and value. Having a disability can make an individual feel isolated and feel excluded from activities that their able-bodied friends are taking part in, thus many connections with people can be lost. “Loss of recreation, friends and familiar bodily functioning and sensation led individuals to describe their illness and injuries as directing them to a foreign set of experiences and a sense of displacement from that which was previously felt as everyday physical and social normality” (Graham, R., Kremer, J., & Wheeler, G., pg. 452). This emergence into physical activity with people who have similar experiences and may deal with similar struggles allows people who may have lost connections with others due to their disability to meet new people.

The research article by Jeffrey J. Martin titled “Benefits and barriers to physical activity for individuals with disabilities: a social-relationship model of disability perspective” focuses on the psychological and physical benefits of physical activity. Psychological benefits include enhanced self-perceptions, higher self-esteem, and reduction in stress, depression, and pain. Just as exercising allows able-bodied people to release steam, reduce anxiety, and release any negative emotions from the day, the same is for people with disabilities. Exercise can turn bad days into good days as people with disabilities get to interact, grow, and increase feelings of freedom with staff members and other people who understand what it feels like to have a disability. Physical benefits include increased strength and fitness, more flexibility and ability to move muscles, and overall sense of physical confidence and development. It is evident that the psychological and physical benefits of physical exercise for people with disabilities trumps any stereotypes and assumptions about ability that stem from able-bodied individuals and that physical activity can quite literally save lives.


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