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Physical Activity for Children and Teens with Disabilities: AAP Policy Explained

Physical activity has countless benefits for everyone, including children with disabilities.

Experts recommend that ALL kids and teens between 6 to 17 years old get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. They should also aim to do activities that strengthen their bones and muscles at least 3 days a week. That frequency, intensity, and amount of exercise can be adjusted to your child's specific needs.

Unfortunately, children and teens with disabilities often face more obstacles when it comes to getting involved with sports and physical activities. That means they don't participate as often. They also aren't as physically fit, overall, and tend to have higher rates of obesity.

Benefits of physical activity

As pediatricians, we encourage children and teens with disabilities to participate in sports, recreation, and physical activities whenever possible. Getting your child involved can boost just about every aspect of their lives.

Some of the many benefits can include:

  • Better lung capacity and increased muscle strength

  • Improved physical and cognitive health

  • Lower body weight

  • Less isolation and increased feelings of being included

  • Better social skills and relationships

  • Improved mental health and academic achievement

  • Enhanced well-being and self-esteem

  • Improved sleep and behavior

How Physical Activity Changed My Son's Life

By: Karl Bayerlein

When my son Kyle was in preschool, he had one of those plastic vehicles kids sit in and use their feet to push around and "drive." I thought maybe he didn't like the toy, but then realized he couldn't figure out how to get in. So, here I was, trying to show him as an adult trying to get into this little car myself to show him.

That's when it became clear that Kyle had trouble with spatial awareness, the ability to sense where your body is in relation to objects around you. Kyle is on the autism spectrum, like his older brother, and spatial awareness was one of his challenges.

I watch sports a lot, and that's how Kyle got interested. My wife and I learned about a horseback riding program for kids on the spectrum, and Kyle got involved. Not only did it improve his physical strength and coordination, but it also helped his social and language skills. His love for sports and recreation just grew from there.

When he was in elementary school, Kyle did track with the Special Olympics. In high school, he started participating in them again and now he plays softball, golf, and adaptive basketball. Outside the Special Olympics, he participates in skiing, fitness classes, and camp.

At 23, like many on the autism spectrum, Kyle doesn't have close friends. But he has the peers and instructors he meets in these programs. They are a large part of his social life. It never became more apparent than during COVID how much participating in these recreational activities has enriched Kyle's life. When all those programs stopped, he was extremely isolated and bored.

Many people who have a disability spend a lot of time on screens. Kyle does too, unfortunately. But he does get out and do these activities that he enjoys all year. He has learned to deal with other people and learned patience by playing on a team. His love of sports helps him relate to people and engage in social interactions with others, even strangers.

Many of these activities aren't advertised. We found out about most of them from coaches and other parents. Local adaptive recreation programs are great, but I think as a parent or guardian, you really have to pay attention to what other programs are available.

I encourage people to make sure your child is involved in a physical education (PE) program at school. Talk to the PE teacher about what your child likes to do. Take your child to games. Give new activities a chance. It doesn't have to be sports. Your child might enjoy another physical activity like dance, theater, or ice skating.

There is sometimes a barrier in terms of cost, but you'll find that some programs are remarkably affordable, especially on the county or city level. Sometimes private organizations have funding available too, whether it's grants, scholarships, or volunteering your time as a parent.

Getting your child involved in physical activity does take effort from you as a parent. You have to sign them up, drive them, get new equipment, and talk them through the hard times. But physical activity is so important for their health and well-being, I think all the effort is worth it. Participating in sports and adaptive recreational programs has benefited Kyle's life more than I could have imagined.

Karl Bayerlein enjoys golf, hiking, and skiing. He has played and participated in sports his whole life and encouraged both of his sons to have active lifestyles.

Obstacles families may face

Physical activity is often at the bottom of the list in a child's treatment plan. This may be because parents and doctors don't always consider all the benefits of exercise, and may be concerned about the risk of injury.

Some of the other obstacles that can make it harder to participate include:

  • Physical or mental limitations

  • Low self-esteem

  • High cost

  • Lack of accessible facilities or programs

  • No access to providers who are experienced with adaptive sports for children with disabilities

  • Bullying by peers or negative stereotypes

How to get your child involved

Kids with disabilities should be offered the chance to participate in sports and other activities that get them moving. There are ways to adapt almost any sport or recreational program. Ask your child what activities they're interested in. Help steer them toward an activity that will help them have fun and do well.

Your child may enjoy activities such as:

Before you sign your child up, talk to your pediatrician about a preparticipation physical evaluation. You can use this time to talk about any issues that could make it challenging for your child to participate in physical activity. Discuss what options are best for your child and what adaptive equipment they might need.

If needed, your pediatrician will get your child's other care team members involved. Together, they can create physical activity prescriptions. Goals for physical activity can even be a part of your child's individualized education program (IEP) at school.

If your child needs adaptive equipment

There may be opportunities in your community for your child that you don't know about. Talk to your pediatrician or someone on your child's care team about activities and specialized programs. They may be able to guide you to an activity that would be a great fit for your child.

If the cost of adaptive equipment is an issue, look into grants in your area. Your local Social Services department is a good place to start. You can also check with national organizations like Move United or U.S. Paralympics.


Talk with your pediatrician about physical activity, sports, and recreation options that would meet your child's needs.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2021)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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