Research project maps why sports is so important for people with developmental disabilities

Diet and lifestyle 25. dec 2020 3 min Associate Professor Jacob Wienecke Written by Kristian Sjøgren

Participating in sports can strengthen people with developmental disabilities physically, intellectually and socially. Danish research is focusing on how sports affects these people in Denmark.

People with developmental disabilities often struggle with mental, social, cognitive and motor challenges.

Many people with developmental disabilities have to overcome various struggles in their everyday lives, and participating in sports may boost their abilities to meet the challenges they face.

This is the hypothesis of a research project at the University of Copenhagen in which researchers have followed a group of young people with developmental disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic to determine how they benefit from participating in a sports community.

“The idea is to examine how physical activity and participation in sports communities affects this very special target group in the long term. For many of them, life can be more complicated than for people without developmental disabilities. This field is really difficult to investigate ethically, practically and scientifically, but the reward is potentially big, since these individuals really lack the tools to improve their life skills: the ability to take care of one’s everyday life,” explains a researcher behind the project, Jacob Wienecke, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen.

The project is called Movement, Social Interaction and Life Skills for Young People with Developmental Disabilities.

Participating in sports may improve their ability to manage daily life

Jacob Wienecke is interested in the link between people’s motor system and cognitive skills.

He investigates this link generally, but in this project, the link is especially interesting because people with developmental disabilities often present both motor and cognitive impairment.

Thus, there is considerable potential in determining how participating in sports communities improves not only the motor skills of the participants but their cognitive skills as well.

If participation in sports communities can achieve this, the effect may spread like ripples in the lives of people with developmental disabilities.

“We investigate how participating in sports communities affects people’s life skills: for example, whether it improves their motivation to shower, use public transport or act independently. We also study whether it improves their motivation to adopt a healthier lifestyle, which is often difficult for this target group,” says Jacob Wienecke.

COVID-19 curtailed the project

Jacob Wienecke entered into collaboration with the Sports School for Adults with Developmental Disabilities. He followed 50 people with developmental disabilities over 40 weeks while they participated in the weekly activities offered by the Sports School.

The project has encountered challenges during the COVID-19 lockdown, but several students say that the stay at the school has improved their quality of life, self-esteem and physical capabilities.

In a video produced by the University of Copenhagen about the research project, Caroline describes how she experienced an increase in happiness from dancing at the Sports School, and Amanda says that participating in sports has greatly improved her self-confidence. Today, she believes more in herself than before she participated in sports communities at the Sports School.

“We know that physical activity is healthy for the general population, but we know very little about how healthy it is for these people and how it can affect their well-being. The project is therefore interesting in determining what these people can achieve though sports communities with weekly exercise and socializing,” says Jacob Wienecke.

Studying the effects in the long run

Another researcher behind the study, Helle Winther, an Associate Professor from the same department as Jacob Wienecke, says that many people with developmental disabilities struggle with many challenges, but that sports has always helped to overcome challenges.

“Sports is great because it is multidimensional, it can help young people and adults to flourish and it stimulates many of their underlying resources,” says Helle Winther.

Another interesting aspect of the research is whether people with developmental disabilities participating in sports communities can achieve positive effects, not just when participating in sports at the Sports School, but also in the long run.

“We ask ourselves: what and how much is required for the effects to last? The participants state that they have made some new friends, and that is great. Sports can achieve social benefits. It can contribute to personal interactions with other people, which can help to develop social and language skills,” explains Jacob Wienecke.

Hard to maintain their interest

The project was planned to last for 40 weeks but was stopped after 12 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though the project did not quite reach its goal, the researchers still have data from the first 12 weeks, and they show that the participants improved their motor skills and physical condition. Some lost weight, and many said it improved their mood.

Jacob Wienecke is not surprised by the positive results, but he also says that the project has taught the researchers that maintaining the long-term commitment of people with developmental disabilities is a great challenge.

“Maintaining their interest is extremely difficult and very resource-intensive and can only be done because the Sports School thinks this project is exciting. Both the researchers and the Sports School want to know more about what works, how it works and how the project can benefit people with developmental disabilities in the long term,” says Jacob Wienecke.

In 2018, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant to the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen for the project Movement, Social Interaction and Life Skills for Young People with Developmental Disabilities.

My research is focused on the motor system. The human being cannot live or cannot interact with the surroundings without using the motor system. A sim...

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