Researcher Develops Fitness Programs to Help People with Intellectual Disabilities

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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A University of Delaware researcher is helping people with intellectual disabilities overcome the challenges of physical fitness by developing programs specifically geared toward them.

For most people, figuring out a standard exercise machine may be simple enough, but for those whose condition causes an intellectual disability, such as fragile X, understanding and performing these exercises can be difficult. Not only can instructions be hard to follow, the busy atmosphere of a public gym can be intimidating or overwhelming, and may lead to a sensory overload.

Iva Obrusnikova, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition, is helping people with intellectual disabilities overcome these barriers and find independence in their fitness routines.

Studies have shown that staying physically fit is particularly important in this population, since adults with intellectual disabilities are usually less active. In general, these adults have higher rates of obesity, and some work in physical jobs that require upper body and core strength.

Obrusnikova and her colleagues are collaborating with organizations such as the YMCA of Delaware, EPIC, and Chimes to promote physical fitness and independent exercise in this population and have developed a program called Progressive Resistance Training for EmPOWERment (PRT-POWER).

In a current clinical trial, researchers provide participants with assessments, a personal trainer, and exercise education. Participants are taken through three weeks of performance training followed by a detailed goal-setting process, with researchers assessing their progress over the course of 10 weeks.

“In our qualitative research studies, we found that this population lacks the knowledge, self-efficacy, confidence and abilities to perform in a typical gym,” Obrusnikova said in a University of Delaware news story.

PRT-POWER is also aimed at educating personal trainers, who seldom work with people with intellectual disabilities. According to Obrusnikova, “when some trainers are asked, ‘What do you do with a person who doesn’t know how to use the chest press machine? they reply, ‘We set everything for them’ or ‘We go to the next machine.’

“That does not help with confidence. We tell these trainers, ‘No, these people need to be given an opportunity to learn. You need to teach them. You need to have patience and use prompting until they learn. But do not overdo it to prevent dependence,’ ” she said. “So our approach is to keep on practicing the particular exercise. We never say, ‘You can’t do it.’ We utilize strategies such as visual schedules and video prompting to help them learn and become independent.”

Obrusnikova and her team break down each exercise into easy-to-follow steps. The PRT-POWER program includes a visual activity schedule that helps people use gym equipment and perform exercises through how-to videos that can be played on a tablet or smartphone. Each video includes step-by-step sequences with voice-over and highlights the trickiest parts.

The team is now developing non-machine, floor exercises to help people with intellectual disabilities who struggle with balance and coordination. Like the machine exercises, the goal is to get these individuals to the point where they can do the exercises on their own.

Obrusnikova is inviting participants to train in the university’s new tower at STAR when it opens later this year. The tower’s third floor will feature a more intimate gym that can be used to help prepare people for working out independently in a community fitness center. Researchers will use visual and sound strategies designed to help this population get more comfortable with the typical noises of a public gym.

After perfecting this program, Obrusnikova’s goal is to adapt it to other patient populations who may benefit from this type of fitness training.

“Currently, we only work with people who have intellectual impairments, but not with those who have neurological or orthopedic impairments like cerebral palsy. That’s the next step,” she said.