Families find ways to help children with challenges exercise

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 6:55 p.m. MDT

Caleb Wagner, 10, and his physical therapist Keri Thompson celebrate a strike during bowling at the Jordan Valley School in Midvale on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — David and Bob Allen were in a predicament.

After the former's retirement, Allen, 71, and his son Bob, 25, would sit on the couch in St. George nearly every day. In February, David Allen made a decision that would alter the next few months for the father and the son.

"We're way overweight and we're just going to die if we sit here on the couch," he said.

But there was a problem. Bob Allen has Down syndrome and could barely walk the mile to the post office without stopping to sit and rest.

He's among the estimated 35 million-43 million people with physical or mental disabilities that can make exercise a challenge. Some lack physical capability. Others don't have the motivation, a challenge for parents trying to prevent other physical problems in their children.

David Allen solved both problems by providing a challenge. He proposed an adventure and convinced his son to walk the 310 miles with him from St. George to Salt Lake City, providing a unique way to get his son moving.

Dietitians at Primary Children's Medical Center are "very concerned" about the weight, exercise and self-image of those who come into their clinic who have special health care needs, according Katie McDonald, clinical dietician at the hospital.

She and fellow dietitians take these children where they are and try to help them make lifestyle choices that will minimize their chances at developing or aggravating additional chronic ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.

"Parents tell me that it's hard to keep coming up with new ideas," McDonald said of the challenge parents face in helping their children exercise.

Children with special health care needs can improve their overall health and possibly slow the onset and effects of their impairment by being physically active, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics "Bright Futures" report.

Roughly 15 percent of children in the United States have special health care needs, according to the 2009-2010 National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This survey measures children with disorders ranging from asthma and cystic fibrosis to children who have autistic symptoms or Down syndrome.

More than 60 percent of children with special health care needs have trouble with taking care of themselves, motor skills, motion, talking, communicating, staying focused and gaining new knowledge, the survey said.

How do you make the jump toward exercise?

"We look at their abilities and not their disabilities," Keri Thompson, a physical therapist at Jordan Valley School, said.

Jordan Valley

This school admits those from preschool age to 22 years old. Nurses, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, teachers and physical educators work together to meet the needs of the children.

"It's a lot of work," adaptive physical education teacher Eric Schwobe said.

He and fellow adaptive P.E. teacher Jinger Beck find ways for each of these children to become more self-reliant.

"It is important to replace eating and relaxing with physical activities," he said. "It is very easy for children with disabilities to use eating as recreation because it is very easy; requiring very little effort."

The teachers create routines for the kids, making exercise part of their daily life. Twice a week they go to P.E.; every day for 20 minutes Schwobe holds a cardio group where students walk around the hallways, stretch to their toes or circle their arms. One to two hours of the week are spent swimming.

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