Park-based afterschool program improves cardiovascular health and physical fitness in children with disabilities

By Sarah Messiah, PhD, MPH
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Children with disabilities are more likely to be overweight or obese and less likely to engage in physical activities versus their peers without disabilities. Historically, children with disabilities have not been fully represented in afterschool programs that specifically promote physical and mental health yet would likely benefit from such programs. Few studies in the literature specifically focus on outcomes of afterschool health and wellness programs designed for children with disabilities.

What did you do in your research?
Fifty two (52) children/adolescents with a developmental and/or intellectual disability ages 6-22 who attended an afterschool and wellness program called Fit-2-Play™ participated in the study. The Fit-2-Play™ curriculum is comprised of (1) Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK), an evidenced-based, outcome oriented, structured, active recreation for children with a focus on developing and improving motor skills, movement knowledge, social and personal skills and (2) EmpowerMe4Life, a health and wellness education curriculum grounded in the American Heart Association's scientific recommendations in promoting heart-healthy lifestyles. We examined changes in children’s body mass index (BMI), fitness levels, and health and wellness knowledge over the school year. 

What did you find out?
Both groups of children who were either of normal weight or overweight/obese improved in all physical fitness tests. Health and wellness knowledge significantly improved for all participants. There was a decrease in BMI in the overweight/obese group over the school year (but it did not reach statistical significance). However, we were successful in maintaining healthy weight in the normal weight group over the school year.

What are the take-home messages?
Given the intersection of the current national economic climate and obesity crisis, it is important to capitalize on existing resources such as our local, city, county, state, and national park systems to conduct prevention efforts. Recent studies show that among adults, parks play an important role in the ability of that community's residents to be physically active and to maintain a normal body weight in large metropolitan areas. Our results here show promising outcomes among children with disabilities as well and suggest parks may be a bountiful resource in addressing the health consequences of the current childhood obesity epidemic that disproportionately affects those with disabilities.

To learn more about these findings contact Eric Hansen, visit our Project Website, or watch this VIDEO that visually summarizes our programs for individuals with disabilities.

Full Journal Article
Haney, K., et al. (2014). Park-based afterschool program to improve cardiovascular health and physical fitness in children with disabilities. Disability and Health Journal, 7(3): 335-342.