Learning disability and exercise – overcoming barriers

profile picture of Rex Fan
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor, BGUK
25 August 2022
Next review due August 2025

Supported by Bupa REDI for Change members

Getting enough exercise is important for your health. Studies have shown that people with learning disabilities don’t get enough exercise. Together we will explore the barriers to exercise for those with learning disabilities and look at ways to set achievable goals. You might find this helpful if you have mild to moderate learning disability or care for someone with a learning disability.

swimmer resting in the pool

What is considered a learning disability?

There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK. A learning disability, also known as an intellectual disability, is when someone functions at a lower intellectual level. This begins to affect people before they are 18 and impacts their abilities in socialising and building skills. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and develop new skills and to understand complicated information.

Usually if you have a mild or moderate learning disability you can still be independent in your daily life and at work or school. People with severe and profound learning disability may need more support and assistance.

What barriers are there for people with a learning disability?

People with a learning disability are often found to do less exercise. Unfortunately, there are barriers that can make it harder to exercise when you have a learning disability. These can include:

  • Lack of adapted or inclusive exercise programmes
  • High costs of transport
  • Lack of accessible transport
  • Sensory issues, such as music being too loud

But there are also more personal barriers. You might feel nervous about trying to exercise. The good news is that this is something you can change. Exercise and fitness can be something everyone can take part in.

Here are some ways to get more involved in exercise:

  • Go with someone you know (friends, family, or a carer)
  • Visit an exercise centre or gym before using it, so you feel comfortable getting there
  • Talk to a doctor about what your options are for doing exercise

Setting goals

To make it more likely that you stick to exercising, set a specific goal and start small. For example, "I will jog for 30 minutes per week on a Saturday". Then slowly increase your goal as you get more used to exercising. Research shows that we are more likely to follow through if we plan beforehand.

It also helps to find a type of exercise you enjoy. But in case you still find it hard to motivate yourself to do so, you can make it more enjoyable by trying out temptation bundling. This is when you combine doing something you don't enjoy with something you do enjoy at the same time. For example, listening to your favourite audio book or music while you are exercising.

What exercises can I do?

Even a small amount of exercise is good for you. But, to really benefit, you should try to do at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, which is two and a half hours in total. Exercises should be moderate intensity – which can include brisk walking or cycling. Or you could try to do at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week which is one hour and 15 minutes.

To understand and measure intensity, try using the “talk test”. For example, moderate exercise is an activity you can do and still talk but not sing. Vigorous exercise is an activity where you can only say a few words but need to pause for breath.

There are many ways to stay active with a disability. Exercises you might like to try out can be:

  • Brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Dancing
  • Cycling
  • Swimming

It’s also good to try strengthening exercises two times a week such as yoga or lifting weights. You don’t have to go to a gym or fitness centre; you can do these at home if you prefer. Try searching on the internet for online classes. You might find it helpful to talk a doctor or health professional before trying out new exercises. They can advise you on what is best and how to avoid injury.

Light physical activity can also be good for you too, such as walking, cleaning and gardening.

What are the advantages of exercise?

If you’re not getting enough exercise, you might be at risk of developing serious health conditions such as obesity. So, it’s important to stay active as this can help you to be healthy. Exercise could help you with:

  • Losing weight
  • Becoming stronger
  • Movement and coordination
  • Balance
  • Flexibility

Exercising more can also help you to feel less stressed, and you might get a chance to meet and spend time with other people. As well as getting more exercise, you should also try to eat a well-balanced diet.

How can I find out more?

Mencap are a UK charity who support those with learning disabilities as well as their families and carers. Their website has information about exercise for people with learning disabilities.

Special Olympics Great Britain also provide information and run competitive sports events for people with learning disabilities.

Other places you can find information about getting active:

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

profile picture of Rex Fan
Rex Fan
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor, BGUK

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