By Darcie Mersereau
Vice President of Health Programs, Special Olympics International
As we age, there comes a point at which many of us introduce prescription organizer trays into our lives. Those trays, into which we count pill after pill, help us keep track of all the prescriptions our doctors give us to treat our myriad health problems. We are grateful for them, because there are many diseases that could kill us if not for these medicines. For many of us, however, using these trays brings a sense of defeat, an acknowledgement that our bodies have somehow failed us. Yet we follow our doctors’ orders, filling those trays week after week, because we want to stay healthy as long as possible and we want to live free of pain, distress, discomfort and limitation.
It is ironic, therefore, that so many of us avoid something that could lessen our reliance on drugs. We know that engaging in regular physical activity is one of the best things we can do to avoid illness and injury. Physical activity helps control weight and blood pressure and reduces risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, and some cancers. It helps us sleep better, improves our mood, and boosts energy. As CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden has stated, “Physical activity is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”
Yet so many of us avoid it. We start a new routine and then stop when we get too busy. We plan to join a gym sometime in an ill-defined future, and fail to follow through. Instead of spending our time on the trail or at the club, we spend too much of it at doctors’ appointments and in drug stores, counting pills and taking them, and all too often dealing with side effects and dependencies.
As highlighted in today’s CDC Vital Signs report, adults with disabilities are even more likely to be inactive and to experience chronic disease than adults without disabilities. Among those with disabilities, those who are inactive are 50% more likely to have a chronic disease than their active peers. While these data may not be particularly surprising, here’s the part of the report we need to pay attention to: adults with disabilities who receive a recommendation for physical activity from their doctors are 82% more likely to get it than those who do not.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, we have seen first-hand the powerful effect of this kind of recommendation. The medical practitioners at Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga have begun “prescribing” Special Olympics to patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This kind of prescription is followed by a discussion with the patient, the local Special Olympics Program, and other community partners to identify a preferred sport or sports and to set up a schedule and circle of support that allows participation. To date, approximately 40 such prescriptions have been written and approximately 30 (80%) of those individuals have begun participating in Special Olympics, a figure that closely mirrors that reported in today’s CDC report.
We need more medical professionals to begin writing prescriptions for Special Olympics to their patients with intellectual disabilities. Those with intellectual disabilities all too often face poorer health and lives spent filling prescription trays, a situation exacerbated when those lives are spent inactive. As shown in this month’s Vital Signs report, medical professionals can be a powerful force in changing the game for those with intellectual disabilities, by writing a prescription for play, for movement, and for prevention; a prescription for Special Olympics.