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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Caleb Wagner, 10, bowls with the help of his physical therapist Keri Thompson, right, at the Jordan Valley School in Midvale on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
He's just about tickled because he knows he did it. It's a real self-worth thing. —David Allen

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.

In 30 minutes of gym time, Schwobe and aides move children from their wheelchairs to modified bicycles, to warm up their muscles and get the children moving.

On a recent Thursday, a group participated in modified bowling. Schwobe placed the ball on a ramp in the gym. He guided Connor Bruce's hand to the ball and helped him press against the ball.

"Push," he said.

He uses this technique — called a full physical prompt — to help the students who cannot do this on their own.

Eventually he plans to scale back his assistance until Bruce is able to push the ball on his own.

Those in the gym cheer when Bruce's ball knocks down several pins filled with material that make them sound like maracas when they tumble. This is part of Schwobe's method as well. Loud sounds and cheers help the students know when they've succeeded.

Bruce is calm as he is pushed around the gym on the bike. The pedals are attached to strings to help propel the foot around.

At the end of gym class, Bruce is transferred back to his wheelchair where he begins to squirm. He smiles as Thompson struggles to get his hiking shoe back on his foot.

A few feet away, a room is filled with gym equipment: two treadmills, a stationary bike, a machine for arm exercises and free weights.

Schwobe has three boys rotating from station to station. He taps Brady Cook's arm to remind him to squeeze the workout equipment as he explained that they are teaching the kids to develop "tenacity." As they learn to push in accomplishing goals with weights, they develop the ability to push through obstacles in life.

Walking to S.L.

The Allens began their walk in February but did not start tracking their progress until they were just north of Cedar City.

They bought Bob Allen some "fancy Nike shoes" that he has worn out already, which they repair with shoe goo.

"We're going to make it," David Allen said.

They take their time, both to accommodate Bob Allen's physical limitations and his quirks. An avid fan of the TV show "Monk," Bob Allen touches all of the reflector posts along the route, similar to how the show's star touches parking meters as he walks down the street.

The two will walk on days or mornings when the weather is cool, avoiding temperatures above 80 degrees. At the onset, Bob Allen could barely walk a mile without stopping. They brought small camp chairs so he could rest along the way. Now the two log five to seven miles a day, stopping about once every few miles.

On a walking day, they will drive out to where they left off the last time. Bob Allen's' mom, Kathy, drops them off and drives a mile or two ahead. When they reach the car, they stop and rest, and set off again.

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"He got pretty discouraged at about 100 miles, that this was a long ways," David Allen laughed. "But at that point there was a downhill so that helped spur him on."

At the end of most walks, Bob Allen gets a chocolate milk, and is in high spirits, David Allen said.

"He's just about tickled because he knows he did it. It's a real self-worth thing," he said.

Since they have been walking, Bob Allen's "observation skills" have improved "400 percent," his father said.

The two have made it through Utah County and around Point of the Mountain. They plan to reach South Jordan by Sept. 14 for the National Down Syndrome Society's buddy walk.

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