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Research

Physical Activity

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Women with disabilities are much more likely to have very low levels of physical activity than non-disabled women.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people with disabilities and chronic illness are less likely than those without disabilities to report regular moderate physical activity (27.2 percent vs. 34.4 percent) or regular vigorous activity (9.6 percent vs. 14.2 percent). The few studies that have been conducted on the physical activity patterns of women with disabilities also suggest that they are not engaging in physically active lifestyles.

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African-American Women with Mobility Impairments Study

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In one study, researchers reported that out of a sample of 50 African-American women with mobility impairments:

  • 92 percent indicated that they did not participate in any type of leisure-time physical activity;
  • 10 percent indicated they exercised regularly three or more times weekly;
  • 2 percent stated that they participated in outdoor unstructured physical activity, such as gardening;
  • almost 82 percent of the women said that they would like to start an exercise program.
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Women with Physical Disabilities Study

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In another study of 165 women with physical disabilities:

  • 72 percent reported decreasing levels of participation in physical activity over the past 10 years;
  • almost 60 percent reported that they "never or rarely" participated in leisure-time physical activity that increased their breathing and heart rate;
  • over half of the women reported never participating in physically active household activities (71 percent) or in physical activities like standing (58 percent), walking (55 percent), lifting (91 percent), or exercise (55 percent).
  • Other researchers have reported lower scores on physical activity participation in a cohort of women with multiple sclerosis compared to a normative sample of women without disabilities.
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Barriers

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Barriers to participation in physical activity include knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, beliefs, social support for participation, time, money, and accessibility issues.

In general, barriers to participation in physical activity can be conceptualized as being intrapersonal, interpersonal, or structural. Existing research on barriers or constraints to physical activity for women with disabilities suggest that all three categories of constraints impede the ability of these women to routinely engage in physical activity.

Intrapersonal constraints include attitudes, values, or beliefs which a person holds that hinder involvement in physical activities. Examples include negative attitudes or beliefs about the value of physical activity, low expectations about one's ability to participate, or lack of interest or knowledge. Intrapersonal constraints identified by women with disabilities that limit their involvement in physical activities include fatigue and pain, the disability itself, lack of knowledge about where to find a program, and limited access to knowledge about their capabilities for activity. Researchers conducting a study of women with multiple sclerosis reported that these women generally lacked the knowledge and skills needed to exercise safely. Lack of behavioral capability and knowledge about how to exercise may be a particular concern for certain subgroups of women with disabilities. For example, some women with severe mobility impairments may not know how to exercise in their wheelchairs, and women with conditions such as multiple sclerosis may exacerbate their symptoms if they do not know how to exercise properly. Interpersonal constraints can be categorized as those that arise from interactions with others (e.g., family, friends, co-workers).

An example of an interpersonal constraint is lack of social support for participation in physical activity. Data from qualitative interviews with women with mobility impairments identified social support as a factor that influenced the values and attitudes women with physical disabilities have about physical activities. Likewise, women with physical disabilities surveyed in another study identified social support, specifically lack of companionship, as a major barrier to being physically active. Structural constraints consist of barriers that arise as a result of external conditions in the environment (e.g., lack of opportunities).

Examples of structural constraints include lack of time, money, or accessibility issues. Women with physical disabilities in one survey identified structural constraints that inhibited their involvement in physical activity. These included lack of money and concern about crime. Additionally, 50 women with physical disabilities in another study identified structural barriers related to transportation and costs. A sample of 215 women with various disabilities in another investigation reported similar structural barriers, including problems with architectural access, access to available and affordable transportation, access to knowledgeable professionals regarding equipment and programs, and feeling safe in their community activity.

Despite these barriers, women with disabilities report interest in participating in physical activity. In a sample of African-American women with mobility impairments, almost 82 percent said that they would like to start an exercise program. In another survey of 165 women with physical disabilities, many of the participants also indicated that they would like to make lifestyle changes regarding their exercise (42%) and leisure and recreation (48 percent) activities.