Fewer than half of disabled adults meet activity guidelines. Ben Thatcher says more needs to be done to identify and remove the barriers to participation
Taking part in sport and physical exercise brings a host of benefits. The UK government’s four primary outcomes for sports participation are all focused on the gains for individuals and wider society, with funding exclusively reserved for sporting projects that are able to deliver:
- Better physical health;
- Enhanced mental wellbeing;
- Improved ‘individual development’ (including self-confidence, esteem and personal resilience); and
- Increased social trust and community cohesion.
Increasing participation in physical exercise across society is seen by the government as a key way to reduce the incidence and severity of major health issues that exert ever-increasing pressure on our health and care services.
The Chief Medical Officers publish guidelines on the amount of exercise individuals should take in order to get maximum benefit. The recommendation currently stands at 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week for adults.
While 63% of UK adults are ‘active’ in accordance with these guidelines, Sport England’s latest research found this is true of only 45% of disabled adults, or adults with long-term health conditions.
Worse still, only 37% of adults with three or more impairments meet the guidelines.
Although a small increase in the number of disabled people meeting the criteria for being active has been observed over the last few years, no such increase has been seen for those with multiple health problems or conditions.
How do we get more disabled people to participate?
Clearly the barriers that disabled people face when it comes to taking part are different to those experienced by their non-disabled peers. These are not just logistical issues meaning that, for example, accessing sporting venues can be difficult for a wheelchair user. Barriers include a lack of suitable activity provision for people with physical, sensory, or other conditions, and likely a lack of opportunities local to them.
The cost of taking part may be a concern, given that the financial circumstances of disabled people are often complex. And psychological barriers exist, including concerns over finding people of a similar standard to play sport with, self-confidence, and concerns over the attitudes of others towards disabled people.
Further research is needed to fully understand the barriers faced by disabled people and those with long-term health conditions and impairments when it comes to participating in sport and physical recreation.
In this respect, disabled people should not be seen as one homogeneous group; after all, there are a myriad different disabilities and health conditions, and these are likely to present their own specific barriers and challenges.
OK, there are barriers. But what about the benefits?
A plethora of research data consistently demonstrates the physical health benefits of being active. There is increasing evidence, too, to suggest that mental health is positively influenced by taking the recommended level of exercise.
Active adults report a higher level of life satisfaction compared with those who take little or no exercise. They report being happier, too. These findings are no less true for disabled people or people with long-term health conditions.
Further, research undertaken by Tennis Foundation, now part of the Lawn Tennis Association, revealed that almost half of surveyed participants from their disability tennis programme felt less stressed and less frustrated since starting to play tennis.
However, some of the benefits of sports participation for disabled people may differ from the population as a whole.
This group often reports the importance of being able to ‘do things with friends and family’ and cites sport as being the factor that gets them out of the house. It would also seem that the social aspect of taking part with others is of particular importance for disabled people, as this allows them to make new friends and expand social circles.
More than for non-disabled people perhaps, taking part in exercise gives disabled people a sense of empowerment.
Opportunities for everyone
If the government is to fulfil its ambition of making sport and physical activity a key catalyst for social and health change, it needs to ensure that opportunities to get active, and stay active, are made available to anyone and everyone, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, age, disability status, or any other factor.
More needs to be done to tailor these opportunities to individuals’ needs, making sure that participating is attractive, easy and fun.
As a nation we need to do more to get these opportunities right – removing any barriers and offering the benefits that people seek. This is especially true for those with impairments or disabilities.
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Ben Thatcher is a research manager at Qa Research. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01904 632 039