Research program examining benefits of exercise for intellectually disabled

Helping adults diagnosed with autism and other intellectual disabilities get in shape has been an extremely rewarding experience for graduate student Phil McKeen, and it’s provided him with a new sense of perspective about his own life.

“It’s a humbling experience, to see the difficulties they deal with on a daily basis, but it also opened my eyes to human potential and to see what they’re really capable of,” said McKeen, a master’s student in kinesiology. “It really enhanced my empathy. It takes you down a notch and helps you reflect on your own blessings.”

Co-supervised by professors Sean Horton and Nadia Azar, McKeen oversees the administration of an exercise program for 14 adults who were recruited by Community Living. Participants come in twice a week and take part in a 90-minute circuit training regimen which includes a variety of exercises.

After the program finishes they will undergo a series of tests to help determine whether the exercise is improving their balance, flexibility, strength, hand-eye coordination and reaction time. That subject is the focus is McKeen’s thesis work, but beyond his graduate studies, one of the program’s goals is to help improve the self-efficacy of the participants.

“Part of the motivation was to get the participants more involved in sport and exercise and to help them build their confidence around these kinds of activities,” said Dr. Horton. “One of Community Living’s goals is to help their clients integrate into the community and we’re hoping this program will make them more confident about joining a gym or an exercise class.”

Joel Parent is a 27-year-old area man with autism enrolled in the program. Carrie Schram, his personal support worker, said she’s seen numerous improvements in both his physical abilities as well as his behaviour since beginning it, noting that he has become much more gregarious.

“He could never skip rope before and he can do it just like anyone else now,” she said. “He loves it. He looks forward to coming here every time and he’s much happier. He loves interacting with the others.”

Cynthia Castellucci, a personal support worker from Community Living Essex, brings four participants to the program and said she’s seen improvements in all of them.

“I hope that we can continue to build upon the success of this because each one of them has really benefitted,” she said.

Kelly Carr is another master’s student involved with the program. She’s helping to develop a suitable questionnaire that would adequately measure whether it’s improving the participants’ self-efficacy. She said seeing how much the participants have improved over the last 11 weeks has been very fulfilling.

“It’s been amazing just to watch them engage with other people,” she said. “We had one participant who didn’t even want to come in the room and now she’s participating in all the activities. It’s a lot of those kinds of things that aren’t really measurable. So much of it is hard to quantify.”

McKeen will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.

Phil McKeen, left, works out with program participant Joel Parent.

Academic Area: