Helping to keep people living with disabilities moving

With physiotherapy clinics and specialized fitness facilities closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals living with disabilities have lost access to vital resources that help maintain and improve their quality of life.

According to Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation neurophysiologist and associate professor Kelvin Jones, research has shown that a regular exercise program for people living with disabilities can help improve body composition and muscle mass, and that periods of inactivity can have significant negative impacts.

“Because muscle mass is associated with physiological resiliency, the greater the muscles mass the higher the physiological reserve people have to help them fight off illness or infections. The loss of muscle mass that comes with inactivity can leave people with a compromised immune system, which is not ideal in the current world health situation.”

Jones adds that with progressive health conditions such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and ALS, the body’s ability to break down and rebuild muscle is compromised. Periods of inactivity can result in a decline of muscle and a less robust response to exercise afterwards.

Jen Leo, director of the Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement, says that these impacts of inactivity are just some of the concerns she and her staff are hearing about from their participants. Providing adapted physical activity and parasport programs to over 1,000 children and adults annually, the Steadward Centre’s clientele rely on the facility, the staff and each other as a source for physical and mental wellness. 

Leo and her team have kept in contact with many of their participants since they closed their doors in late March to gauge their concerns. Much of what they’re hearing is in line with the negative impacts of inactivity Jones previously mentioned including worries about losing overall strength and, in some cases, mobility. 

“Many of our participants exercise as a means to simply maintain their health and the concern that they will be unable to keep up maintenance is very high,” says Leo.

With the Steadward Centre retrofitted with adapted physical activity equipment, as well as the guided programming and one-on-one training provided by staff, Leo adds that some participants are struggling to find ways to adapt an at-home exercise program without these resources. They are also concerned with losing the motivation to exercise that often comes with the socialization aspect of working out in a shared space or in a group fitness setting.

“We have many participants who come to our facility every day or multiple times a week to not only exercise, but to maintain a social connection with others. Without this, and perhaps without strong support systems at home, our team is concerned that the physical and social isolation paired with the lack of physical activity can be harmful to our participants.”

While they have their concerns, many participants have expressed a desire to stay active during isolation and welcome the accountability and routine that comes with an at-home exercise program. Leo and her team are answering the call by creating remote training packages for their participants. 

To support participants to be more active at home, these remote training programs will focus on using equipment that is readily available such as filled water bottles or canned goods to sub in for weights, or using therabands or resistance tubing which can be ordered online at low cost. Jen says the Steadward Centre is exploring funding options to send packages to participants who need small low cost equipment such as therabands, along with printed exercise routines. 

For participants who have access to video conferencing, Steadward Centre staff will be able to see the participant perform the exercise and they can offer real-time advice related to exercise form, share words of encouragement, or offer tips to enhance support if it’s needed such as providing advice to a caregiver. Those with limited access to technology can be supported through phone calls and printed exercise material.  

Leo notes that while these programs are being created with current participants, they are happy to take questions from anyone experiencing a disability--including parents and caretakers. 

“For those in the disability community, exercise and physical activity can be a very critical piece in maintaining physical, mental and emotional health. We recognize that resources for this community aren’t as readily available as it is for people who do not experience disability and we want to do what we can to help provide evidence-based resources to support our community.”

If you’d like to contact The Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement, please email infotsc@ualberta.ca or call 780-492-3182. 

Physical Activity Resources for People Living with Disability