Helping Adults with Intellectual Disabilities Get Physically Fit

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to get more physically fit? Are you finding it difficult to establish and maintain a new exercise routine? If so, you are not alone. This is a challenging goal for all of us. And, for the majority of adults with intellectual disabilities (ID), it is even more challenging.
We all know that, as we age, we can become more fit and reduce physical problems by eating well and exercising regularly. This is especially important for adults with ID, as research shows they tend to be less fit than the general population. These men and women need individualized attention to develop and stick to an exercise routine. With some encouragement and well-thought-out programming, they can acquire the skills they need to incorporate exercise into their daily lives.
Before developing an exercise routine for someone with ID, you should consult with a physician to discuss his or her medical needs. A doctor will be able to help answer questions about how much exercise the person needs and what exercises would be most appropriate. This will enable you to establish realistic and safe fitness goals. A general rule of thumb is to start out making small changes and modify the routine as needed.
It is helpful to discuss with him or her the many ways that exercise is beneficial and how it can help people lead better, healthier lives. While talking about the pros and cons of exercise, find out what kinds of activities the person with ID is interested in and what goals he or she may have. Committing to an exercise routine is a lot easier when it is enjoyable and relatively easy. For example, if the person likes shopping, a good exercise program may be going for a “mall walk,” and then walking around stores that are especially interesting to him or her.
Finding opportunities to exercise can be problematic for people with ID who rely on others to provide them with daily care and support. Not everyone has access to treadmills and exercise bikes in their own homes. Often individuals with ID rely on others to provide them with rides to places where they can exercise (e.g., YMCA, Special Olympics). If the person in your care wants to exercise in places outside of the home, you can help by providing transportation to and from these locations.
The best thing you can do is to exercise with him or her. Modeling the behavior you want to see is powerful, and having an “exercise pal” is more fun than exercising alone.
It is also good to have an exercise plan that the person can easily engage in at home. With a little help, adults with ID can use exercise videos, practice dancing, do some vigorous cleaning, and walk around the house and yard. These types of activities are also low in cost when compared to the price of a gym membership. The key is to offer as many opportunities to exercise as possible.
Having specific goals can help people track progress and improve self-esteem when they meet their objectives. Setting up an individualized reinforcement system can also support their motivation to exercise when they would rather sit on the couch.
Exercise is good for all of us. It reduces stress, helps with weight loss, and improves stamina. For people with ID, it can also help them increase their self-confidence and sense of connection to the community. With a little guidance and creativity from caregivers, adults with ID can enjoy exercising throughout their lives.
Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Clinical Director for the western Massachusetts division of the May Center for Adult Services. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit