How to Encourage Physical Activity in Children with Down Syndrome
Obesity affects one out of every five American children. This means that 20% of kids have a body mass index (BMI) above the 95th percentile compared to their peers.
Why is obesity so prevalent? Although genetics can certainly be a factor, childhood obesity in most kids is typically attributed to too many calories and too little exercise.
Children with Trisomy 21 — commonly referred to as Down syndrome — are no doubt included in the statistics listed above, but for these kids, the risk of obesity isn’t the only challenge associated with a lack of physical activity.
A child with Down syndrome typically also faces other secondary health issues, including heart and musculoskeletal issues, many of which can limit or prevent them from being as active as their peers.
For a child with Down syndrome, exercise can be more challenging, but it can also play a huge role in reducing and, in some cases improving, many of the health issues associated with Down syndrome. It also helps improve a kid’s functional ability, which means physical activity can help children become more independent.
The importance of physical activity cannot be disputed, but understanding Down syndrome and what physical activity looks like for a kid who has been diagnosed with it can be more challenging for teachers, coaches and even parents.
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- What Is Down Syndrome?
- Reasons Why a Child With Down Syndrome Might Not Be Exercising
- Down Syndrome and Exercise: What Does It Look Like?
- Benefits of Physical Activity for Kids With Down Syndrome
What Is Down Syndrome?
Typically, children inherit 46 chromosomes — 23 from each parent. These then come together to create a “pair.” Each pair is numbered 1-23. Trisomy 21 is a genetic condition that results when a child inherits an extra chromosome. Someone with Trisomy 21 has a third chromosome attached to their 21st pair of chromosomes.
Trisomy 21 is commonly called “Down syndrome” after John Langdon Down, the British doctor who first identified it in 1866.
Down syndrome is often diagnosed before birth, although occasionally it isn’t discovered until a child is born. Once it’s discovered, doctors can run additional tests to determine whether or not other conditions are present as a result. Some will show up at birth, while others may develop over time.
The addition of an extra chromosome can change the way a child’s brain and body develop as they age. It can also put kids with Down syndrome at a greater risk for other health conditions, including:
- Spine disorders
- Musculoskeletal issues
- Congenital heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Endocrine disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Hearing loss
- Developmental disabilities
- Speech apraxia
- Feeding disorders
Many people mistakenly believe that people with Down syndrome can’t live vibrant, healthy lives. In the 1980s, the life expectancy of an individual with Down syndrome was only 25 years old. Today, their life expectancy is 60 and climbing.
Why the change?
As the medical community has continued to study this condition, they have learned more about the impact that having an extra chromosome has on a child’s body and heart. Among the significant advances that have improved the quality of life for someone with Down syndrome are the sweeping advances in the treatment of heart conditions in both kids and adults.
In addition to improved medical treatments, much more is now understood about keeping the body healthy and happy. The important role of nutrition and exercise in helping individuals with Down syndrome cannot be overstated, and both of these go a long way toward maintaining a healthy weight and mitigating many other health issues.
Reasons Why a Child With Down Syndrome Might Not Be Exercising
The allure of television and video games have parents everywhere scratching their heads and wondering how to encourage their kids to be more active. Parents of children with Down syndrome face some of these same dilemmas, but it’s not as simple as taking away a gaming console or restricting screen time. Each child is unique, but a child with Down syndrome also faces real challenges with their ability to move, avoid injury and keep up with their peers. Here are some reasons why a kid with Down syndrome might struggle to be active.
1. Physical Limitations
A kid with Down syndrome can potentially have problems with their spine, hands, feet or hips. In some cases, these may simply mean they move more slowly than their peers. In other cases, these might prevent them from participating in specific activities altogether. These issues can also increase their potential for injury when they participate in certain activities.
2. Heart Problems
Heart problems are common among individuals with Down syndrome. Depending on the issues present, a child might be limited in the type or duration of physical activity they can handle. For example, a kid might be physically able to dribble a basketball, but their body isn’t producing the red blood cells it needs to provide enough oxygen to make it through a basketball game or even half an hour on the basketball court at the local park. In other cases, they may be hesitant to do something they or their parents believe might damage their heart or aggravate an existing condition.
3. Lack of Confidence
Many kids struggle with a lack of confidence, but if a child with Down syndrome has a physical limitation that becomes obvious during physical activity, then they may be reluctant to join other kids in kicking a soccer ball, shooting hoops or running around the playground. A kid at school may have made a comment about their abilities or laughed when they attempted an activity, leaving them with a fear of trying again. A lack of confidence may be more difficult to identify, which is why it’s important to talk with your child about why they aren’t active. Find out what is holding them back and help them identify confidence-building activities they can enjoy. The best way to help your child stay active is to find things they love to do.
4. Lack of Positive Influences
Although parents can be excellent teachers, there is a lot to be said for the impact that kids have in teaching each other. In some cases, a child might not have a friend or sibling who can patiently teach them how to shoot a basketball or ride a bike. They may struggle to form relationships with others in their class or lack other kids their age in the neighborhood to interact with on the playground or at the park.
In some cases, it’s not necessarily that there aren’t positive influences available. Children with Down syndrome don’t always learn at the same level as their peers. It may take more time or a different way of explaining something before they fully grasp it. If a child with Down syndrome isn’t interacting with people who understand this and tailor their instruction to account for this developmental difference, then they may become frustrated or discouraged.
5. Lack of Opportunities
Some kids don’t live in areas with a lot of opportunities for physical activity. Perhaps they live in a small town where there are soccer and football teams, but no dance or basketball teams. Or maybe they cannot get a ride to programs or activities that interest them.
Down Syndrome and Exercise: What Does It Look Like?
The reasons a child with Down syndrome may struggle to be active are very real. But that doesn’t need to be the end of the story.
When it comes to finding effective ways to encourage physical activity in a child with Down syndrome, the ultimate goal is to provide them with enjoyable activities to build their functional ability. What many people forget is that this will look different for everyone. There’s no formula for activity. Each kid is different, and their physical abilities and interests will vary. With that in mind, it’s important to seek out opportunities for them to build and improve their balance, strength and cardiovascular system.
Balance is essentially the body’s positioning within the space where it resides. Balance is essential to motor skills of all kinds, as well as successfully performing basic daily movements, such as walking into school, climbing stairs or running around a soccer field. Improved balance also helps kids prevent injury when they’re playing or moving around at school.
Helping a child work on their balance doesn’t take a lot of creativity. It might be as simple as challenging them to balance on one foot, eventually adding additional tasks such as putting a hand on their hip or closing their eyes as they master the skill. Or, it may take the shape of formal activities to improve balance, such as yoga, martial arts or dance classes. Many children with Down syndrome join the same classes or teams as their peers. However, some communities also offer programs designed to provide exercise for kids with Down syndrome or other conditions that may make physical activity more challenging.
If you prefer an inclusive environment or your community doesn’t offer programs specifically for children with Down syndrome, don’t hesitate to speak up and talk with businesses and community leaders to find ways to modify existing programs.
The purpose of strengthening activities is to increase the strength and function of various muscles throughout the body. Often, when someone hears the term “strength training,” they immediately picture bulky muscle men winning world titles. But strength training really means the intentional movement that aims to overload a certain muscle within the body and build it back up over time.
This can be done under the watchful eye of a physical therapist, if necessary, but it can also be done through simple childhood activities, such as playing on the playground, school physical education activities or joining a sports team. For kids who have not been active in the past, try starting with simple things like helping to carry groceries in from the car or taking walks around the block.
3. Cardiovascular System
Heart problems are common in individuals with Down syndrome, which means that exercises designed to improve heart health are especially vital. These exercises are essential to maintaining — or in some cases improving — a kid’s ability to walk up and down stairs, carry a backpack or even walk between classrooms at school. When done consistently, these activities help to build up the strength and stamina needed to become independent. A kid who has the tools to be independent when they are younger will likely be more independent as an adult as well.
Heart-healthy exercises can be as simple as riding a bike or visiting a neighborhood playground. Or, they can be more organized, such as swimming — a great low-impact option for individuals with back or hip problems — or an organized sport such as soccer or basketball.
Physical Activities for Students with Down Syndrome
Physical activity can benefit kids of all ages and abilities, but encouraging physical activity in children with Down syndrome is about more than weight loss.
1. Improved Muscle Strength
Increased muscle strength makes it easier to accomplish daily activities such as walking up and down stairs, getting dressed or standing up in the shower. Anytime a kid with Down syndrome can perform these simple movements with greater ease, they achieve and maintain a higher level of independence. Encouraging and improving this as they grow will have long-term results as they become adults and work toward becoming more independent.
2. Greater Cardiac Function
Even if they can physically perform an activity, kids with Down syndrome tend to become tired more easily. On average, their heart rate is 10% lower than their peers who don’t have Down syndrome. Engaging in heart-healthy exercise over a long period has been shown to improve heart function in kids with Down syndrome, meaning they have more stamina. Improved stamina opens the door to being more active and is another important part of encouraging independence.
3. Increased Bone Density
There is a well-known link between aging and decreased bone density. All adults lose bone density as their bodies grow older, but individuals with Down syndrome typically have lower-than-average bone density. Because the human body naturally loses bone density as it ages, building up bone density as a child is an important way for individuals with Down syndrome to prevent bone density-related health issues later in life.
The best way to improve bone density and reduce the risk of bone density-related issues later in life is to engage in strengthening and cardiovascular activities. When regular strength-training activities are incorporated into a regular routine, over time, the discrepancy in bone density between individuals with Down syndrome and those without declines.
4. Decreased Obesity
Kids in the U.S. are increasingly at risk of obesity. Children with Down syndrome are susceptible to the same struggles as other kids — too much time sitting and a notable lack of nutrition — but children with Down syndrome are also more likely to have thyroid issues and a slower metabolism, which may predispose them to weight issues. When a child with Down syndrome engages in regular physical activity, they are protecting their bodies from a series of health issues in childhood and later on as adults.
5. Improved Respiratory Capacity
Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have a lower red blood cell count than individuals without Down syndrome. This can lead to lower blood oxygen levels, making it more difficult to take in and use the amount of oxygen the human body needs to function properly. Engaging in regular physical activity can improve the body’s ability to take in and process oxygen.
Miracle Recreation is one of the largest, oldest playground manufacturers in the United States. We are proud to manufacture and distribute playground equipment to play spaces to schools, organizations, parks and communities of all kinds. With each piece of equipment we sell, our goal is simple: we want children of all abilities and ages to experience the thrill of playing independently and exploring the world around them. We offer customization, and our sales representatives are highly trained and experienced in creating playgrounds for everyone, including those in your community with Down syndrome.
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