Motivating Persons with Developmental Disabilities to Exercise
Commercials on television and in newspapers make exercise look easy and fun. But for most people who have never participated in a regular exercise program, performing structured activity on a regular basis is a major challenge. Clearly, there are many more enjoyable sedentary activities that people would prefer doing in place of exercise, such as getting more sleep, eating, playing cards or computer games, or watching television. Exercise requires discipline and the mental capacity to commit to a lifelong habit.
Fitness professionals are confronted with the challenge of finding creative ways to keep people exercising beyond a few weeks or months. This is also a major challenge for professionals, staff and caregivers who are involved in improving the health and fitness of persons with developmental disabilities. There are many ways to make lifestyle changes in persons with developmental disabilities using behavioral strategies that in many respects are no different from the general population. Here are a few examples:
- Develop a reward system that reinforces small accomplishments in the exercise program. A loss of 1 or 2 pounds, completing one month of exercise without missing a session, or trying a new activity, should be rewarded.
- Offer a "buddy" system that will allow the person to exercise with a friend or someone they enjoy being around. Sometimes you can recruit members from the community (e.g., retirees, stay-at-home moms) to walk with a person living in a group home or other supported living facility. High school and college students are often looking for volunteer activities to obtain membership in service organizations such as the National Honor Society.
- Keep records of performance. It is critical to know how much and how often the person is exercising. At the end of each month, have a "night out" for those individuals who have achieved their targeted goals.
- In group homes or other congregate care settings, keep wall charts to record progress. Many adults with developmental disabilities will enjoy seeing their names on the board and following their progress as they increase their physical activity levels. A wall chart can show a photo of the person exercising with blank boxes next to his or her name. Upon completion of the exercise session, the person places a checkmark in the box. Some adults like to keep track of how many boxes are filled with checkmarks.
- When developing a reinforcement system, try to stay away from high-fat food items. For example, substitute a Friday night pizza outing with bowling or a movie but stay away from the buttered popcorn and soda. Bring your own low-fat popcorn to the movie theater, if possible, and replace soda with bottled water.