Through several articles in this blog, I have tried to support the importance of physical activity and exercise in our life. More specifically, in one of my previous articles I tried to show the enormous impact of electronic smart devices in our personal and social lives. It is this technological trend in particular that encourages kids to become ever more sedentary in our fast paced world. Some people however live their lives in a way that is completely unknown to most of us. I am talking about people with disabilities, who live next to us, share the same fears, expectations, and ambitions in life as we do. Waking up this morning and being in a great mood, I want to raise the fact that the benefits of physical activity and exercise are universal for all children, including those with disabilities.
Although individuals with disabilities have made significant gains throughout the last decades, they still face pervasive inequalities in opportunities for physical activity. In fact, children with disabilities participate less in competitive and recreational sports compared to their non-disabled peers. The first international effort targeting the promotion of personal and social well being of children with disabilities began with the first competitive sporting event for individuals with disabilities back in 1948, followed by the first Paralympics competition in 1960. Since then, and until these days, The Special Olympics is the largest recreational program for children with intellectual disabilities, with more than 1 million athletes from 125 countries. However, despite these international efforts, children with disabilities have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, lower levels of muscular endurance, and higher rates of obesity than typical children. In addition, the rate for depression, low self-esteem and confidence episodes are higher in children with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers. Children with disabilities are often not encouraged to have active lives and in fact they tend to follow sedentary lives with greater health problems, leading to more physical activity barriers often resulting in complete social withdrawal.
Several previous studies have supported the beneficial role of exercise and sport participation in children with disabilities. Regular physical activity is essential for the maintenance of normal flexibility, muscle strength, joint structure and function and may slow the functional decline often associated with disabling conditions (1). Furthermore, adequate levels of muscular strength and endurance are associated with increased bone mass, reduction in injury from falls, and a greater ability of children with disabilities to complete activities of daily living (2). Sports participation also enhances the psychological well-being of children with disabilities through the provision of opportunities to form friendships, express creativity, develop a self-identity, and foster meaning and purpose in life (3). Moreover, Special Olympics athletes have showed heightened self-esteem, perceived physical competence, and peer acceptance when compared with non-participants (4). Lastly, participation in regular physical activity can foster independence, coping abilities, competitiveness, and teamwork among children with disabilities (5). Going through the scientific literature, I also found an ongoing research study that will provide us with a clear insight of the effects of sports participation on the health of children and adolescents with a chronic disease or physical disability. And this is going to be the first complete study examining the multidimensional effects of exercise in children with disabilities.
Few months ago, I had the opportunity to watch the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships hosted in Doha, Qatar. I had the chance to watch individuals with different disabilities from all around the world competing at a high level. I felt proud for them and I admired their effort, as I usually do when I watch people performing their best either physically or mentally. I also had the chance to speak with some athletes from the Greek National team. They took me back in time, since their concerns and goals were very similar to mine when I was competing at a high level as a track and field athlete. Their approach to life showed me that despite their disabilities they have learned to set goals, work hard to achieve them and above all keep a positive spirit whatever life brings them.
My final message to children with disabilities must be strong and very clear. Physical activity, exercise and social interaction are parts of life that belong to all of us despite our current or future condition. Find your own unique way to stay physically active and be around people who appreciate and respect you as a person. Take examples from other individuals who, despite their disabilities, have achieved great things in life. Just give the best of yourself and you will surely get something amazing in return.