From a sports perspective, a disability may be any physical or mental incapacity caused by an injury or a disease, which places a limitation on the participation of the individual in sport. Physical disabilities are commonly the result of a genetic disorder, disease, injury, or as a result of aging; mental disabilities, as defined by organizations such as the Paralympics and Special Olympics, are referenced as "intellectual disabilities."
As a general rule, disabled persons of all types are less physically active than their able-bodied counterparts. The effect of a serious disability will often have the twin effect of removing the person from participation in athletic activities that he or she previously enjoyed, coupled with the emotional burden of seeking out athletic alternatives in societies where sports participation opportunities for the disabled are not always readily available.
When the disabled person becomes a sedentary individual, there will be an unavoidable impact on the health and function of all key bodily systems: disabled persons and able-bodied persons must have the stimulation of exercise to maintain proper physical health. The ability to control body weight through strict diet and the monitoring of caloric intake is only one half of the health equation for any person. Any physical exercise in the face of a disability will invariably be a benefit to the health of the body's various operating and regulatory systems.
The range of limitations created by disability is extremely broad. Common disabling conditions where regular physical exercise may be continued are structural conditions such as osteoarthritis, paraplegia (paralysis and loss of function in the lower limbs), the amputation of a joint, a range of cardiovascular diseases such as arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure, and genetically induced conditions such as multiple sclerosis (which causes a deterioration in nervous control of the muscles).
The benefits of regular physical exercise to disabled individuals are both physiological and psychological. The ability to participate in exercise tends to generate a significant increase in the positive outlook of the individual; the self-confidence that is built through the successful participation in any sports activity tends to translate into a more vibrant attitude towards daily living. An exercise routine for the disabled is accepted as a significant means of combating stress; the neurotransmitter, endorphin, the chemical produced by the pituitary gland during exercise, provides the same natural pain suppression and mood-elevating qualities for all persons who exercise.
The physiological benefits to exercise for disabled persons are of significance. One of the most commonly observed physical conditions in the disabled is excess weight, which occurs in a direct relationship to a sedentary lifestyle. The consequences of excess weight are well known, with impacts that extend throughout the body. Physically disabled persons are more prone to the development of diseases such as type II diabetes, cholesterol-related conditions attributable to the greater presence of low density lipoproteins in the bloodstream, and high blood pressure. The reduction of weight through exercise will generally reduce the impact of all cardiovascular disease.
Excess weight, coupled with the limitations of either wheelchair or prosthetics use, places additional strain on the joints of the musculoskeletal system, contributing to the early onset of osteoarthritis, the degenerative deterioration of the articular cartilage located at the end of the bones where joints are formed. Resistance exercises, those involving the use of weights, as well as the resistance generated through walking or running, will naturally improve muscle strength and bone density; the stress on the skeleton naturally stimulates bone cell formation.
Stretching and flexibility exercises are a crucial component for the regular exercise program of a disabled individual. Many forms of disability require the person to assume a posture to achieve movement for which the body is not designed. Crutches and other assistive devices are common examples of the means required of the disabled to propel themselves. A stretching program is recommended, one where the
An important byproduct of exercise for the disabled person is an improved ability to achieve a deeper and more restful sleep. Sleep is an important aspect in the preservation of both emotional balance and physical health in all persons, particularly those who must also conquer a disability.