Encouraging Lifetime Physical Fitness

Article excerpt

Does your school encourage fitness for all students, including those with disabilities?

Did you know that students with mental retardation are at risk for poor health related to a sedentary lifestyle?

Have parents and educators discussed student fitness at your school?

What resources do you need to promote lifelong fitness for all students?

What social, academic, and health benefits for students might follow from physical fitness?

Taking the last question first: The health-related benefits of physical activity are well known. Regular physical activity decreases the risk for health problems, such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, and obesity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). Participation in physical activity and sport can promote social well-being, as well as physical and mental health, among children and adolescents (Roberts, 2001).

Despite all these benefits of physical activity, students with disabilities are at risk for developing sedentary lifestyles (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). Further, students with mental retardation constitute the third largest disability group and are at risk for unique motor needs more so than peers without disabilities. Even though health-related concerns are a focus of educational and community leaders, many schools and districts lack direction in how to eliminate inactivity in students with mental retardation.

This article attempts to provide some answers for educators who teach students with mental retardation. The article is based on original data collected on children with mental disability, teachers who work in public schools, and parents whose children rely on special education programs to take a role in facilitating lifetime physical activity skills (for background information, see box, "What Does the Literature Say"). For details about data collection and methodology, write to the authors. This article focuses on results and recommendations aimed at improving the physical activity habits in school-aged children with mental retardation.

Study of Physical Fitness

This study had three main objectives. First, we investigated the health-related fitness of children with mental retardation, using a recently developed criterion-related fitness protocol developed by Winnick and Short (1999). second, we surveyed physical educators to gain their perspectives related to physical activity and other curricular issues. Finally, we surveyed parents of children with disabilities to determine their perspectives on physical education program focus and the types of activities in which they participated during free time.

We pooled three data sources to draw conclusions about the current status of fitness, issues of imp ortance to physical educators, and parent perspectives on the nature of physical education focus for their child. These include fitness scores from 25 school-age children, a survey of 100 adapted physical educators (i.e., persons who provide direct services in the area of physical education for children with unique motor needs), and response from 24 parents whose children were enrolled in a university-based motor program. see Tables 1 and 2 for sample responses of educators and parents.

What did Our Data Show?

Data on physical fitness levels of children with mental retardation support low fitness levels in comparison to healthy standards set for students with disabilities (Winnick & Short, 1999). In all fitness areas assessed, at least two thirds of the sample was below the recommended standard for students with mental retardation (Winnick & Short). Considering the fact that employment opportunities for people with mental retardation involve working with their hands, lack of physical fitness has grave implications for the future of these students.

Results from the survey of adapted physical educators charged with providing services for children with mental retardation demonstrated a need for curricular resources. …