In a world simultaneously obsessed with beauty and food, the struggle to maintain fitness is an immense one for everyone, but it is even more difficult among the disabled community. According to a study by the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research in 2008, within a given community, and as many 49 percent of males and 96 percent of females with intellectual handicaps can be described as overweight or obese. These inflated percentages reveal the truth about those who are intellectually or developmentally disabled: their handicaps create challenges to stay fit. This puts more responsibility on the parents of the intellectually disabled to ensure that their child is healthy.

There are three main factors that contribute to the greater risk for special needs children of being overweight. First off, without proper brain function, many special needs children are unable to grasp the concept of being full or exactly what is the proper amount to eat in one sitting.

“Many individuals have complex syndromes,” says Denise Westenfield, Head of Delegation for the Western Wings Program in the Minneapolis Area. “These syndromes may impact how their metabolism works, how they feel satiety (when does their brain tell them they are hungry and/or full), and may be complicated by obsessive compulsive disorders, which interfere with their ability to eat reasonable amounts of food.”

A root cause of this lack of satiety is a lack of function in the hypothalamus. This leads to an inability to feel full and are in fact, hungry all the time. If left alone to eat, binging could become a serious problem.

Secondly, very often the mental disabilities also lead to physical ones, such as lack of muscle tone and low metabolism.

”These physical disabilities may interfere with their ability to effectively participate in physical exercises and burn calories like the “normal” population,” says Westenfield.

Lastly, especially in a society obsessed with food like the United States, often times children are rewarded for good behavior with treats, and often times it is junk food.

Says Westenfield, “For people with special needs this is particularly troublesome as they probably have issues with number one and two and then they receive praise for good behavior or other situations with food with lots of calories and little nutrition.”

With such risk for over-eating and an inability to take part in any rigorous exercise programs, parents often struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle for their special needs child. Aside from her work with Western Wings, Denise Westenfield also has a son with Prader-Willi Syndrome, and she admits to having to work hard to make sure he stays healthy.

“At our home to manage my sons weight our pantry and refrigerator are locked at all times,” she says. “He is on a strict caloric diet and he cannot be responsible for his own food needs (we serve him everything). We are also very diligent about getting him daily exercise to help with weight management.  [He] is much taller than most people with PWS at 6’2”, but despite his additional height we work very hard to keep him at about 210 pounds on a daily caloric intake of about 1800 calories, not much for a teenage boy.”

The Special Olympics has become an important part of promoting a healthy physical lifestyle among special needs children. Within the Western Wings branch alone, about 150 athletes from the Minneapolis area participate in as many as nine different sports throughout the year. Worldwide, athletes from over 170 countries participate in over 70,000 events year round.

“I am very committed to Special Olympics and what it offers our athletes.  Not only can our athletes participate in a variety of sports at varying levels of abilities, but Special Olympics provides a social venue to hang out with friends and learn how to develop important social skills.”

The appeal of bringing fun and friends to exercise is what keeps intellectual disabled children active and interested in exercise. It also provides security to parents who can watch their children run and play and have a good time doing it.

Around the world, children with disabilities struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and the dichotomous obsession with beauty and fatty foods makes the solution difficult to obtain. The only real solution is a lot of hard work from parents and caretakers to ensure that children stay active and eat healthy.


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