Exercise is a fundamental component of a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages and abilities. However, its significance is even more pronounced for individuals living with Down syndrome (DS). Down syndrome is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21 (also known as trisomy 21) and is associated with a range of physical and cognitive challenges (Mann, Spiric, Mitchell, & Hilgenkamp, 2023). Alarmingly, less than 10% of adults living with Down Syndrome achieve the recommended amount of physical activity (Mann et al., 2023). Engaging in regular exercise offers numerous benefits that can enhance the overall health and quality of life for individuals living with DS.
In this article, we will explore the importance of exercise for individuals living with Down syndrome and provide insights into how tailored exercise programs can make a positive impact.
The benefits of exercise for individuals living with Down syndrome:
Improved Cardiovascular Health:
With regard to the cardiovascular/pulmonary system, individuals with DS often have impaired cardiovascular function, decreased endurance, lower maximal heart rates, lower blood pressure, and impairments of the heart and valve function itself (Mann et al., 2023). Individuals living with DS are at an increased risk of heart-related conditions. Regular exercise can strengthen the heart muscle, improve blood pressure, and improve cardiovascular function, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Enhanced Muscle System and Strength:
People living with DS often have low muscle tone and poor muscle quality, which can affect physical function such as mobility as well as physiological functions; Muscle is our largest organ and when muscle quality is poor this can affect metabolism, hormones, increase inflammation, decrease immune function and ultimately open up the door to other diseases. Exercise programs that focus on strength training can help improve muscle quality, balance and coordination and enhance overall physical function making daily activities easier, but the benefits don’t stop their; Improving muscle quality will also reduce inflammation, increase the immune system, improve bone density, aid hormonal balance and improve metabolism (Melo, Neto, da Fonseca, Stone, & Nascimento, 2022).
Better Bone Health:
Osteoporosis is more common in individuals living with DS. Weight-bearing exercises, such as resistance training, walking, or dancing, can increase bone density, reducing the risk of fractures (González-Agüero et al., 2012; Melo et al., 2022)
Maintaining a healthy weight is essential for overall well-being. Less than 10% of adults living with down syndrome do not complete physical activity (Mann et al., 2023) and are also potentially taking medications which can make weight loss difficult. Regular exercise can help individuals living with DS manage their weight, reduce the risk of obesity, and improve body composition (Cunha et al., 2018; Melo et al., 2022).
Improved Cognitive Function and Mental health:
Exercise can improve cognitive function, even in older patients living with down syndrome (Lewis, Peiris, & Shields, 2017). Studies highlight that resistance training exercise can enhance cognitive function, including memory, problem-solving skills and mood in patients living with down syndrome (Melo et al., 2022; Post et al., 2022). This is especially important for individuals living with DS, who may face cognitive challenges.
Exercise improves self-confidence, cognitive function, behaviour, memory, learning and language. This allows for better social communication and enhanced interaction. In addition, having an exercise physiologist allows for people living with down syndrome to build a strong social connection with the exercise physiologist (Post et al., 2022).
Exercise can significantly contribute to functional independence for individuals with DS. By improving physical strength and coordination, individuals may become more self-reliant in activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing, and cooking. This increased independence can boost self-esteem and overall quality of life (Lewis et al., 2017; Melo et al., 2022).
Exercise & Down Syndrome: Considerations
– Aerobic Capacity and Heart Rate: Individuals living with Down syndrome often exhibit lower aerobic capacity and peak heart rates compared to the general population. As a result, customary methods of assessing exercise intensity may require adjustments.
– Muscle Tone and Joint Flexibility: The presence of low muscle tone and joint laxity demands caution to prevent potential injuries during physical activities.
– Cardiovascular Health: Be attentive to any underlying heart defects, as well as potential vision or hearing impairments, which may affect exercise choices.
– Bone Health: Individuals living with Down syndrome are at a heightened risk of osteoporosis and a rare upper spine condition, necessitating exercise choices that promote bone strength and spine health.
– Start Slowly: It’s crucial to begin exercise programs at an appropriate level and progress gradually to avoid injury.
– Incorporate Variety: Include a mix of aerobic, strength, and balance exercises for a well-rounded fitness routine.
– Safety First: Ensure that exercise is performed safely, with proper form and technique, and under supervision if necessary.
– Enjoyment Matters: Choose activities that the individual enjoys, as this increases the likelihood of long-term adherence to the exercise routine.
The Role of Exercise Physiologists in NDIS
Exercise physiologists are trained professionals who specialise in designing and implementing exercise programs tailored to an individual’s specific needs, abilities, and medical conditions. When it comes to down syndrome and other NDIS related disabilities, their expertise is invaluable.
Tailored Exercise Programs
It is essential to recognize that exercise programs for individuals living with Down syndrome should be tailored to their specific needs and abilities. Consulting with an exercise physiologist, can help create personalized exercise plans that address the individual’s unique challenges and goals.
NDIS Exercise Physiology: Accredited Exercise Physiologists have undergone specialised training to comprehend the health implications of conditions such as Down syndrome, enabling them to craft personalized exercise regimens aligned with individual needs and objectives.
They know how to assess and initiate your program at an intensity suited to your current physical state and make adjustments as you make progress. Their support ensures the safe and proper execution of exercises, and they can also provide training to your support network to maintain these standards.
Certain Accredited Exercise Physiologists have a specific focus on exercise for individuals with disabilities. They collaborate closely with you and your support network to facilitate the achievement of optimal health, independence, and an enhanced quality of life.
Exercise plays a pivotal role in improving the physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being of individuals living with Down syndrome. It offers numerous health benefits. Tailored exercise programs, designed by an exercise physiologist to address individual needs and abilities, are essential in harnessing these benefits. By promoting exercise as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle for individuals living with DS, we can help them lead more fulfilling lives and overcome some of the challenges associated with their condition.
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An exercise physiologist has the education, skills and experience to improve the life of individuals living with an NDIS related diagnosis.
Speak to an accredited exercise physiologist today to learn how they can assist an individual living with an NDIS disability.
Written by Accredited Exercise Physiologist – Christopher Kondos
Christopher Kondos is an ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist with 6+ years of experience in the health and fitness industry. Christopher has completed a Sports & Exercise Science Degree and a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology.
– Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst -2022 (Received an Executive Dean’s Award for these studies)
– Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at Australian Catholic University, Strathfield – 2019
-Student Exercise Physiologist at Nepean Hospital (Cardiac Rehabilitation) 2021
– Approved SIRA Provider (No. 20963)
– ASCA Strength and Conditioning Level 1 accreditation – 2018
Cunha, A. S., Silva-Filho, A. C., Dias, C. J., Durans, R., Brito-Monzani, J. d. O., Rodrigues, B., & Mostarda, C. T. (2018). Impacts of low or vigorous levels of physical activity on body composition, hemodynamics and autonomic modulation in Down syndrome subjects. Motriz: Revista de Educação Física, 24.
González-Agüero, A., Vicente-Rodríguez, G., Gómez-Cabello, A., Ara, I., Moreno, L. A., & Casajús, J. A. (2012). A 21-week bone deposition promoting exercise programme increases bone mass in young people with Down syndrome. Dev Med Child Neurol, 54(6).
Lewis, M., Peiris, C. L., & Shields, N. (2017). Long-term home and community-based exercise programs improve function in community-dwelling older people with cognitive impairment: a systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy, 63(1), 23-29.
Mann, S., Spiric, J., Mitchell, C., & Hilgenkamp, T. I. M. (2023). Development of a Physical Therapy-Based Exercise Program for Adults with Down Syndrome. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(4), 3667.
Melo, G. L. R., Neto, I. V. S., da Fonseca, E. F., Stone, W., & Nascimento, D. D. C. (2022). Resistance training and Down Syndrome: A narrative review on considerations for exercise prescription and safety. Front Physiol, 13, 948439.
Post, E. M., Kraemer, W. J., Kackley, M. L., Caldwell, L. K., Volek, J. S., Sanchez, B. N., . . . Maresh, C. M. (2022). The Effects of Resistance Training on Physical Fitness and Neuromotor-Cognitive Functions in Adults With Down Syndrome. Frontiers in Rehabilitation Sciences, 3.