Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults with Disabilities

Resources for Doctors and Health Professionals

More than 1 in 4 US adults 18 – 64 years of age has a disability. These are adults with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs; hearing; seeing; or concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities. Aerobic physical activity can help reduce the impact of these chronic diseases, yet nearly half of all adults with disabilities get no leisure time aerobic physical activity.

Doctors and other Health Professionals can Play a Role

Increasing Physical Activity among Adults with Disabilities Infographic

Doctors and other health professionals can play a role in promoting physical activity among their adult patients with disabilities. Adults with disabilities were 82% more likely to be physically active if their doctor recommended it, than if they did not get a doctor recommendation. However, only 44% of adults with disabilities who visited a doctor in the past year received a physical activity recommendation from their doctor.

Doctors and other health professionals can use these 5 steps to increase physical activity among adults with disabilities:

  1. Remember that Physical Activity Guidelines are for Everybody
  2. Ask about Physical Activity
  3. Discuss Barriers to Physical Activity
  4. Recommend Physical Activity Options
  5. Refer Patients to Resources and Programs


Remember To:

  • Communicate appropriately and respectfully with and about an individual with a disability. People-first language is the best place to start when talking to a person with a disability. It emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, refer to the person first, by using phrases such as, “a person who …”, “a person with …” or, “person who has …”
  • Use the teach-back method to make sure your patient understands the recommendations.

Remember the Physical Activity Guidelines are for Everybody

Doctors and other health professionals should recommend physical activity, based on the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines, to their patients with disabilities. Adults of all shapes, sizes, and abilities can benefit from being physically active, including those with disabilities.

2018 Physical Activity Guidelines

  • All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • Bouts, or episodes, of aerobic activity of any duration may be included in the daily accumulated total volume of physical activity.

For important health benefits, all adults should do both aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activities.

For Aerobic:

  • At least 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (i.e., brisk walking; wheeling oneself in a wheelchair); or
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (i.e., jogging, wheelchair basketball); or
  • A mix of both moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activities each week. A rule of thumb is that 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity is about the same as 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

For Muscle-Strengthening:

  • Activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week (i.e., working with resistance bands; adapted yoga) as these activities provide additional health benefits.

Key Guidelines for Adults with Disabilities

  • When adults with disabilities are not able to meet the above Guidelines, they should engage in regular physical activity according to their abilities and should avoid inactivity.
  • Adults with disabilities should talk to their doctor about the amounts and types of physical activity that are appropriate for their abilities.

Download the Physical Activity Guidelines (PDF). [14.4 MB, 118 pages]

Ask About Physical Activity

A person in a wheelchair talking with his doctor

Doctors should recommend to their adult patients with disabilities to get physical activity on a regular basis that is consistent with their abilities. Doctors can ask about physical activity levels of their patients with disabilities by asking questions such as:

  • How much physical activity are you currently doing each week?
    • How often?
    • How long?
    • At what intensity level?
  • What types of physical activity do you enjoy, now or in the past?
  • How can you add more physical activity to your life?

Additional guidance can be adapted from Exercise is Medicine [1.72 MB, 25 pages] Health Care Providers Action Guide

Discuss Barriers with Patients

Adults with disabilities face barriers to getting aerobic physical activity. Discuss the following barriers with your patients with disabilities to help them find ways to get physical activity in the built and natural environment, including:

  • Knowing about and getting to programs, places, and spaces where they can be physically active;
  • Having social support (e.g., setting up a buddy system, making contracts with others to complete specified levels of physical activity, or setting up walking groups or other groups to provide friendship and support) for physical activity;
  • Having limited information about accessible facilities and programs; and
  • Finding fitness and health professionals who can provide physical activity options that match their specific abilities.

Read more about physical activity barriers among adults with disabilities:

Recommend Physical Activity Options

Recommend physical activity to your patients with disabilities, but remember they need to:

  • Engage in the amount and types of physical activity that are right for them;
  • Find opportunities to increase regular physical activity in ways that meet their needs and abilities;
  • Start slowly based on their abilities and fitness level (e.g. active for a few minutes at a time, slowly increase activity over several weeks, if necessary);
  • Include aerobic physical activities that make them breathe harder and their heart beat faster for important health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers;
  • Know that most aerobic physical activity may need to be modified, adapted, or may need additional assistance or equipment; and
  • Avoid being physically inactive. Some physical activity is better none.

Aerobic physical activities may include:

two people in wheelchairs racing on track
  • Aquatic therapy
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Brisk walking
  • Cross-country and downhill skiing
  • Hand-crank bicycling
  • Hiking
  • Horseback riding
  • Nordic Walking
  • Rowing
  • Seated volleyball
  • Swimming laps
  • Water aerobics
  • Wheeling oneself in wheelchair
  • Wheelchair basketball, tennis, football, or softball

Physical Activity Resources for Doctors and other Health Professionals

Use the following resources and programs to get educated on a wide range of physical activity options and to help you refer and connect your adult patients with disabilities.

For all disability types:

For cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities:

  • HealthMattersTM Program is a partnership between community and academia with a common aim to improve health of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • Special Olympics provide comprehensive, community-based health and wellness plus broad improvements in health systems and policies through the Healthy Communities initiative, which is supported by CDC. Special Olympics also offer a wide range of free health examinations and care through the Healthy Athletes program. The organization also provides tips on coaching and physical activity options for people with disabilities. Contact Special Olympics Healthy Athletes at 1-202-824-0308 or toll-free at 1-800-700-8585, or by sending an email to

For vision or hearing loss:

For mobility limitations, limb loss or paralysis:

CDC Works to Improve Physical Activity among Adults with Disabilities

CDC funds states are working to help adults with disabilities be more physically active.

Here are a few examples:

The Alabama Department of Public Health is promoting a statewide campaign, Scale Back Alabama, to encourage Alabamians to get healthier by maintaining a healthy weight and doing physical activity.

  • The highlights of the program include:
    • Collaborating with the Alabama Hospital Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield Alabama and the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD) on Scale Back Alabama to provide a ten-week campaign to encourage adults, including adults with disabilities, to maintain a healthy weight and be physically active.
    • Providing weekly inclusive health tips to participants via email on how to maintain a healthy weight, be more physically active, and eating more fruits and vegetables.

The Michigan Department of Community Health’s Disability Health Unit is provides an evidence-based, group physical activity program designed for people of all abilities.

  • The highlights of the program include:
    • Partnering with the Michigan Arthritis Program to expand the delivery of EnhanceFitness to adults with developmental, cognitive and mobility disabilities
    • Reaching over 4000 participants with one-quarter being adults with disabilities with attendance at 90 classes across 76 sites statewide.

The South Carolina Research Foundation is providing an evidenced-based wellness program and preventing secondary debilitating conditions in people with intellectual disabilities.

  • The highlight of the program include:
    • Partnering with the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs and Able-SC to promote healthy lifestyles, including physical activity through Steps to Your Health (STYH), which was developed, field-tested, and evaluated to be effective in promoting wellness and preventing secondary debilitating conditions in adults with intellectual disabilities.
    • Providing a ten-week, small group instructional program with interactive lessons provided by a trained STYH instructor.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Signs. Available at May 2014.
  2. Carroll D, Courtney-Long E, Stevens A, Sloan M, Lullo C, Visser S, Fox M, Armour B, Campbell V, Brown D, and Dorn, J. Disability and Physical Activity – United States, 2009-2012. MMWR. 2014.
  3. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2018. Available at
  4. Rimmer JH, Riley B, Wang E, Rauworth A, Jurkowski J. Physical activity participation among persons with disabilities: barriers and facilitators. Am J Prev Med 2004;26:419–25.