Supporting people with intellectual disability to be active

18 July 2011

The University of Sydney, in partnership with two leading Australian disability service providers, is embarking on an applied research project aimed at sustainably increasing the level of physical activity in the everyday lives of adults with intellectual disability in order to combat growing concern over sedentary lifestyles.

Adults with intellectual disabilities are much less physically active than the general community according to Chief Investigator Associate Professor Roger Stancliffe from the Faculty of Health Sciences.

'One recent study found that people with intellectual disability aged between 25 - 34 years have an activity level equivalent to that of a 75 year old in the general public.'

This lack of physical activity means that people with intellectual disability are becoming increasingly susceptible to lifestyle diseases that are avoidable - such as cardiovascular disease and premature ageing - on top of their existing conditions.

'This is a cause for concern when we consider that adults with intellectual disability usually don't have physical impairments, with 85 per-cent or more being fully mobile,' says A/Prof Stancliffe.

A/Prof Roger Stancliffe
A/Prof Roger Stancliffe

'The issue is that in the majority of cases people living in the community or in supported accommodation do not have appropriate support to enable them to incorporate physical activity in their lives in a safe, effective and meaningful way. This is what we are hoping to change.'

The project, run in partnership with Lorna Hodgkinson Sunshine Home and House with No Steps, aims to increase physical activity for participants to at least the level of the general community in order to improve their fitness and wellbeing.

The unique difference with this project is that it will achieve this through the up-skilling of existing disability staff and infrastructure, rather than bringing in new expertise. The motivation for this is to make the program sustainable and cost-effective so that if successful it will become a core element of service delivery that will continue long-term.

'We have been looking for effective, sustainable, evidence based ways of to engage clients in active and healthy lives,' says Rebecca Fletcher, CEO of Sunshine. 'The results of the research will directly influence out service delivery, especially because our staff will be trained to deliver these interventions.'

The project will compare two different approaches; a gym-based exercise program and a lifestyle approach to determine the most effective strategy.

'While the focus will be on physical improvements such as strength and fitness, we might also expect to see the psychosocial benefits of physical activity that we see in general populations, like decreased susceptibility to depression,' comments A/Prof Stancliffe.

Led by Stancliffe, the multidisciplinary team of Professor Glen Davis, Professor Adrian Bauman, Associate Professor Stephen Jan and Dr Hidde van der Ploeg bring together complementary expertise in clinical exercise science, physical activity and health, and health economics to work on this unique project.

The research project is supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council Partnerships for Better Health grant.

Master of Health Science (Developmental Disability)
With content drawn from leading research projects such as this, the University of Sydney's Master of Health Science (Developmental Disability) program is now accepting applications for study commencing in 2012. For more information visit