Physical fitness and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities: A mixed methods analysis on the effects of an adapted fitness program

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Cite as: Colombo-Dougovito, A. M., Savage, M., & West, A. (2022, April). Physical fitness and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities: A mixed methods analysis on the effects of an adapted fitness program. Poster presentation at the 2022 SHAPE America National Convention & Expo, New Orleans, LA.



While physical fitness is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) often do not engage in recommended levels of physical fitness compared to adults without IDD. Given demonstrated health concerns, individuals with IDD require equal opportunity to take part in fitness programs within their communities. Yet, for this to happen, fitness professionals need to be prepared and comfortable working with diverse clients, including those with disabilities. However, little is known about their competency. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine a fitness program for individuals with IDD to understand the programmatic impact on physical fitness, and to explore the affective influence of the program and the role of the instructor.


Using a sequential explanatory mixed methods design, this study was complete in two distinct phases. During the first phase, authors retrospectively analyzed a longitudinal quantitative dataset of fitness performance data from 50 adults with IDD that was collected over an 18 month period. Every three months the, (a) gait test, (b) stork balance test, (c) push up test, (d) sit up test, and (e) 1-mile run were measured. Additionally, the follow anthropomorphic data were collected: (a) body mass index (BMI); (b) visceral adipose tissue; and (c) muscle mass. A repeated measures analysis was used to understand group differences over time. In the second phase, two congruent qualitative data strands were used to “explain” the quantitative findings: (1) a case-study of a fitness instructor for adults with IDD; and (2) field observations of fitness classes for adults with IDD. All qualitative data were transcribed and coded thematically.


Quantitatively, significant changes were not found for any of the included fitness or anthropomorphic variables over an 18-month span. Qualitative data show the fitness instructor used a myriad of foundational pedagogical strategies to engage with clients, including motivational techniques, adapting activities for individual needs, and developing a sense of community among the participants.

Possible conclusions:

Contrary to earlier findings linking physical activity to improvements in balance and muscle strength, this analysis found no significant quantitative changes as a result of participating in a regular fitness program for a year or more. Though not preferable, the lack of change may prove a net positive considering that, though individuals did not improve in strength or BMI, they also did not regress (i.e., lose strength or increase body fatness). Keeping one’s health as individuals get older is vital to combat many of the negative side effects of aging. More so, the observed fitness classes were found to share commonly an engaging, communal setting and were structured to provide as many opportunities for success as possible. These findings suggest that fitness classes with a quality instructor that can provide a positive environment for adults with IDD that may prove beneficial to the maintenance of the present standard of health.

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