Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Wellness for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

SELECT a Lifetime of Physical Activity


James Rimmer holds the Lakeshore Foundation Endowed Chair in Health Promotion and Rehabilitation Sciences at the Lakeshore Research Collaborative, University of Alabama, Birmingham. He may be reached at

While there is a strong and urgent need to promote higher levels of physical activity among all Americans, there is a particularly compelling need to address the low rates of physical activity among many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). A recent study by Havercamp and Scott (2015) found the risk of physical inactivity was 4.5 times higher compared to a group who had no disability. Unfortunately, many people with IDD have less access to many of the more engaging types of physical activity that increase the likelihood of long-term adherence to this important health behavior.

It’s time for individuals with IDD to have the opportunity to SELECT a physical activity program that will result in a lifetime of regular activity. The following are six critical characteristics of such a program, which are presented in the SELECT model in Figure 1:

  • Social Engagement. The S in SELECT refers to the most important element of physical activity: Social engagement. No one likes to do things alone when it comes to movement-related behavior, which is why games, sports, and dance were created thousands of years ago. The incorporation of social engagement in exercise routines will lead to greater acceptance and adherence of regular exercise among people with IDD.
  • The Enjoyment Factor. E stands for Enjoyment. If an activity is not enjoyable (e.g., riding a stationary bike alone in a room), it is almost guaranteed to fail after the novelty wears off. Even games like the Wii can become quite boring and meaningless after a few months and result in short-term use and long-term failure.
  • Learning Something New. The L in SELECT characterizes the nature and importance of self-discovery. Learning a new activity (e.g., Yoga movements, dance routine, sport) or improving an old one (e.g., tennis, golf) in a socially dynamic, enjoyable setting is highly gratifying to most people and can keep many people with and without IDD engaged in the activity for many years. Golfers, tennis players, line dancers, and many other physical activity groups are constantly searching for ways to learn something new to enhance their performance. This makes learning the third most critical element behind social engagement and enjoyment. When thinking about physical activities for adults with IDD, consider the types of activities where the skills can be broken down into small enough steps so that there is a sense of learning and accomplishment. Everyone likes to feel that sense of joy when they finally get the routine or movement pattern correct.
  • Exploration a Key to Discoveryis for Exploration. For people with IDD, tapping into our “explorer” instinct is necessary for maintaining a strong desire to be physically active. Many people are able to sustain low to high intensity exercise for longer periods if they perform them in new, enriching environments that are visually appealing. Many “explorers” bike through different neighborhoods or trails, visit malls to view new store displays or sale items, or walk through a range of neighborhoods to view different homes and parks (often driving to the location).
  • Friendly Competition. C is for Competition. Elite athletes are not the only ones who are motivated to exercise through sport. Many people enjoy competing against themselves, such as trying to reach a target number of steps per day and beating the previous month’s goal, or competing in a group against other opponents. Competition can also be at a very high level such as participating in the Special Olympics. Team sports such as basketball, golf, and softball are often performed because of the competitive nature of the game and the enjoyment element associated with winning.
  • Task Completion. Finally, the stands for Task completion. High responders to exercise are generally categorized as “task completers.” They like to check things off their list, daily exercise and doing chores being two of the major ones. Some people naturally engage in physical activity by completing daily routines (e.g., shopping, cleaning, chores), while others start the day with a regular exercise routine (e.g., going to the fitness center, walking, jogging). People with IDD also like to be “task completers,” so engaging in a daily bout of exercise at the same time of day, preferably in the morning when energy is fresh, is a great way to build in lifetime physical activity.

We may have gotten it wrong by suggesting to people with IDD and other groups that the only approach to obtaining regular exercise across a lifetime is by purchasing a stationary bike or joining a fitness center. While this may work in the short-term, without multiple opportunities to hit a number of SELECT “buttons,” long-term adherence to regular physical activity will be a challenge.

Figure 1. SELECT Model of Physical Activity

  • Havercamp, S., & Scott, H. M. (2015). National health surveillance of adults with disabilities, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and adults with no disabilities. Disability and Health Journal, 8(2), 165–172.

Note: The contents of this article were developed under grant number 90RE5009-01-00 from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this article do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, or HHS, and endorsement by the federal government should not be assumed.