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from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Diseases & Conditions



Staying Healthy

Physical Activity for Persons with Mental Retardation

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People with mental retardation often have a combination of health problems, which are often tied to physical inactivity. Recent studies have looked at the heart and lung function of people with mental retardation. When they are in their 20s, they often have the heart and lung function of people 20 to 30 years older. Inactivity can make a person more likely to develop problems with the heart and blood vessels. Inactivity can also decrease a person's ability to take care of himself or herself.

There are many benefits to physical activity. A person who is active feels better about himself or herself. Physical activity in people with mental retardation can help improve their health, physical function, self-esteem, and behavior. It can provide an enjoyable social outlet and it can help support families and caregivers.

Benefits of Exercise

A program of regular physical activity helps people of all ages and abilities. An individual can develop a well-rounded exercise routine that includes aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching exercises.

Aerobic Activity

Aerobic activity is any activity that involves the repeated use of large muscle groups. These activities, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or using a wheelchair, raise endurance. They improve the function of the heart and lungs. Aerobic exercise reduces the risk of developing many diseases of the heart and blood vessels. It also reduces their severity. Such diseases include hardening of the arteries (coronary artery disease) and high blood pressure (hypertension). Aerobic activity can lead to a longer and healthier life. It should be done for at least 30 minutes, three days each week.

Strength Training

Strength training involves isometric exercises or weight training. Strength training improves strength, bone health, and daily function. Strength training should include at least one set of one exercise of each major muscle group performed at least two days each week.

Some people with mental retardation have muscle imbalances. They must make sure to exercise the muscles on both sides of a joint. This ensures balanced strength. It prevents abnormal muscle tone.

Stretching Exercises

Stretching exercises should be done before and after exercise. Stretching exercises help improve range of motion of a person's joints. They reduce muscle soreness and spasticity. They improve movement. Stretching is especially important for persons with mental retardation. They may have decreased flexibility. This results from muscle spasms.

  • Where muscle tone is normal, each stretch should be held for 10 seconds without bouncing.
  • Where there are muscle spasms, each stretch should be held for 20 to 30 seconds, without bouncing.


People who have mental retardation may also have associated medical conditions which justify precautions related to physical activity. As an example, seizure disorders may prevent taking part in certain activities. Also, Down syndrome is a common cause of mental retardation and is typically associated with loose joints (generalized ligament laxity). This may increase the risk for neck (cervical spine) injury. For these people, medical evaluation and possibly X-ray examination are needed prior to participation in certain activities.

Environmental conditions such as heat illness are more likely to affect people who have mental retardation. Be sure to provide enough fluids to drink and the right clothing to wear. See your doctor for a preparticipation physical examination. This should take place before the person takes part in an exercise program or sport. This is especially important for people who have heart abnormalities.

The Special Olympics

About the Special Olympics

Over the past 30 years, there has been a major increase in opportunities for sports and physical activities for persons with mental retardation. This is due in large part to the efforts of groups like the Special Olympics.

In 1968, the first Special Olympics were held in Chicago. About 1,000 people took part. In 2003, more than 7,000 people from around the world competed in the Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland. Today, it is estimated that more than 3 million people from 180 countries take part in the Special Olympics.

Special Olympic athletes embrace the concept that sports are played for the love of the game. Competition, in and of itself, is a reward. Special Olympics athletes represent the true Olympic ideal.

In the Special Olympics, athletes are matched for competition. The match is based upon their levels of physical and mental ability. The Motor Training Program of the Special Olympics is made for severely disabled athletes. It focuses on taking part. It doesn't focus on competing. These athletes take part in special events. Their competition is measured against their personal best.

Special Olympics stress the joy that comes with physical activity and competition. It tries to make every athlete a winner. This approach is shown by its motto. It reads: " Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt. "

Eligibility for Participation in the Special Olympics

The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America believes that all persons with mental retardation should be encouraged to participate in some sport or form of physical activity.

Local chapters of Special Olympics can be found throughout the world. They give support for the development of appropriate exercise programs to the families and caregivers of persons with mental retardation.

Being eligible for Special Olympics depends upon being diagnosed with mental retardation. It is limited to people older than 8 years of age. Special Olympics training is available for children 6 and 7 years of age.

For more information, visit the website of the Special Olympics.

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Reviewed by members of
POSNA (Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America)

The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA) is a group of board eligible/board certified orthopaedic surgeons who have specialized training in the care of children's musculoskeletal health. 
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Last Reviewed

January 2007

AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.