CDC and Special Olympics: Inclusive Health

Boy shooting basketball at a park

Physical activity is the cornerstone of good health. However, less than half of U.S. adults with disabilities meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.1 Learn how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with Special Olympics to increase participation in year-round wellness programs among people with intellectual disabilities—a term used when a person has certain difficulties with thinking, learning, remembering, and reasoning.

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. Physical activity plays an important role in maintaining health, well-being, and quality of life. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, physical activity can help control weight and lower the risk for early death, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Physical activity can also improve mental health by reducing depression and anxiety. For people with disabilities, physical activity can help support daily living activities and independence.

Any amount of physical activity that gets your heart beating faster can improve your health. It helps to remember some activity is better than none. For even greater health benefits, the Guidelines recommend that all adults, with or without disabilities, get at least 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity per week, which can be broken down into smaller amounts each day. Muscle-strengthening activities, such as adapted yoga or working with resistance bands, provide additional health benefits and are recommend two days a week.

CDC and Special Olympics Partnership

Fitness plays a key role in the mission of the Special Olympics—a CDC partner organization that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community. Physical activity, good nutrition, and hydration enhance athletes’ sports performance and improve their overall health and quality of life. Recent Special Olympics data reveal that fitness programming is urgent, given that more than half of Special Olympics athletes are overweight, almost a third have obesity, and 57% have hypertension.2

CDC and Special Olympics have joined forces to increase the number of people with intellectual disabilities who participate in year-round wellness programming that includes flexible fitness intervention models and resources to promote weight loss and decrease blood pressure. Special Olympics also trains coaches and fitness instructors to work with people with intellectual disabilities and develops partnerships to support local and national fitness participation.

Inclusive Health

Inclusive health means people with intellectual disabilities are able to take full advantage of the same health programs and services available to people without intellectual disabilities.

To prevent illness and promote healthy behaviors and safety for people with disabilities, CDC is committed to disability inclusion in public health programs, working to eliminate barriers to health care and improve the ability to get routine preventive services. As part of this work, CDC supports Special Olympics’ efforts to improve the physical and social-emotional well-being of people with intellectual disabilities by increasing inclusion in health care, wellness, and health systems for Special Olympics athletes and others with intellectual disabilities.

More broadly, the Special Olympics partnership with CDC supports a range of health initiatives, including

  • the Healthy Athletes program, which facilitates health screenings, health promotion, and education; an expansion of access to follow-up care and wellness programming;
  • partnerships with medical schools and health professionals to integrate appropriate training and education for the next generation of health professionals; and
  • development of the largest data set on people with intellectual disabilities in the country—to better analyze the problem of health inequality and how best to address it.

This partnership leverages the Special Olympics community of more than 700,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, 135,000 coaches, and 700,000 volunteers to spark nationwide change.

Fitness Programming for Athletes by Athletes
Renee Manfredi

Renee Manfredi, Special Olympics athlete and Health Messenger from Hawaii, showing off her School of Strength workout

The mere mention of the word “bootcamp” can cause anxiety. Yet for many, it conjures up strength, courage, and resilience, which is exactly what Special Olympics Athlete Health Messenger and bootcamp instructor Beth Donahue wants her teammates to develop. When Special Olympics asked Beth and five other athletes to develop a resource using adaptive fitness videos and tools called School of Strength, she accepted it without hesitation, like any other challenge. “Getting exercise every day is something I can control, it helps me feel strong and confident,” said Beth. “When I see other Special Olympics athletes working out, getting stronger and more confident, that motivates me to keep going!”

Inspired by the School of Strength, athletes around the country accepted the challenge to get fit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health Messenger Lynna Hodgson from Missouri set up a camera in her house to lead live workouts for her local Special Olympics community. She skillfully integrated workouts she saw Beth Donahue perform, and added her own exercises to the mix.

David Riley, a regional fitness captain, and School of Strength participant was inspired to motivate his fellow athletes to start working out regularly. David began his fitness journey by tracking his Fit 5 goals for an entire year. Special Olympics’ Fit 5 Resources challenge individuals to live by the three simple goals of staying active 5 days per week, eating 5 total fruits and vegetables per day, and drinking 5 bottles full of water each day. “Fit 5 helped me keep eating good food so I could stay healthy and strong, and not get sick again. It did become a habit, and no, I am not taking a break from it.  If you take a break, you won’t keep doing it,” shared David.

CDC would like to thank Beth, Lynna, David, and our partner, Special Olympics, for sharing this story with us.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Division of Human Development and Disability. Disability and Health Data System (DHDS) Data [online]. [accessed May 4, 2021]. URL:
  2. Special Olympics International. Healthy Athletes data (2007-2020). Washington, DC.