A boy by himself looking lonely and staring off into the distance.

Loneliness, Disabilities, and the Importance of Inclusive Physical Activity

While it’s normal to feel lonely at one time or another, chronic loneliness poses serious risks to both mental and physical health.

The British charity, Sense, recently released a report on disability and loneliness showing that individuals with disabilities are more likely to be chronically lonely than individuals without disabilities.

The Sense Report goes on to state that:

  • 53% of all individuals with a disability report feeling lonely on a regular basis
  • 77% of young people with a disability experience chronic loneliness

How can we combat such staggering and disturbing statistics? One solution may be exercise!

Both Current Psychology and the Journal of Nursing & Health Sciences report that physical activity has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation in all age groups. For individuals with disabilities, participation in sports and other physical activity has also been shown to positively impact social experiences and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Although any form of physical activity can be beneficial in combatting loneliness, research suggests that participation in inclusive (i.e. individuals both with and without disabilities participate together) sports and physical activity programs benefit individuals with a disability to an even greater extent.

Why is loneliness bad for you?

Nobody likes to feel lonely. It’s an undesirable and emotionally distressing experience.

A girl sits alone with her head down, looking sad, tired, and depressed.
A girl sits alone with her head down, looking sad, tired, and depressed.

For individuals who are chronically lonely, there can also be significant impacts on long-term mental and physical health. Chronic loneliness has been linked to a number of mental health conditions, which include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide

Not only does loneliness have significant effects on mental health, but it can also directly impact physical health. As you can see, loneliness is not a minor health threat. Research suggests that chronic loneliness is as much of a threat to health as obesity and smoking.

Chronic loneliness has been linked to:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Alterations in gene expression, causing the body and brain to go into a protective mode
    • This causes additional stress and aging while the body is constantly in a state of “high alert”
  • Increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone)
  • Changes in levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that determines impulsive behavior)
  • Long-term inflammation and damage to the tissues and blood vessels of the heart increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases
  • Sleep difficulties

The statistics on the impacts of loneliness on physical health are sobering. According to the Harvard Medical School and Everyday Health, people experiencing chronic loneliness are:

  • 64% more likely to develop dementia in later life
  • 29% more likely to suffer a heart attack
  • 32% more likely to have a stroke
  • 45% more likely to suffer early death

These risk factors can have an even greater impact on individuals with disabilities, as they often struggle with concurrent health conditions and other impairments.

Why do individuals with disabilities have higher rates of loneliness?

Individuals with disabilities face additional barriers when building social connections. Depending on the nature of the disability, these barriers may include:

  • Physical barriers, such as a lack of accessible transportation and/or facilities
  • A lack of inclusive programs
  • A lack of needed supports and accommodations to participate in programs

While these barriers all present issues for individuals with disabilities, the biggest barrier to all meaningful social engagement among individuals with disabilities is our society’s attitudes towards individuals with disabilities. Most commonly, an overall lack of awareness, stigmas, and other misconceptions about individuals with disabilities makes developing social relationships more challenging.

A boy using a wheelchair sits by himself and watches a team prepare for a game.
A boy using a wheelchair sits by himself and watches a team prepare for a game.

According to the Sense Report:

  • 49% of non-disabled people don’t believe they have anything in common with individuals with disabilities
  • 26% of non-disabled people admit they have avoided engaging in conversation with a person with a disability

With these statistics in mind, how can we all work together to break down these barriers and facilitate social connections among people both with and without disabilities?  

Inclusive sports and physical activity programs offer a solution.

How does physical activity help?

It’s no secret that exercise does wonders for both your physical and mental health.

Participating in physical activity has been shown to provide the following physiological, emotional, and social benefits:

  • Physiological Benefits
    • Boosting mood
    • Reducing the risk of numerous diseases, such as strokes, heart disease, and cancer
    • Increasing mobility
    • Improving the ability to perform other daily living activities
  • Emotional Benefits
    • Increasing self-esteem
    • Providing an opportunity to develop new skills
    • Creating a sense of accomplishment from setting and meeting goals
  • Social Benefits
    • Feelings of inclusion and belonging to a part of a larger group
    • Providing all participating individuals with common ground to talk about and share experiences

Why are inclusive physical activity opportunities particularly important?

According to the English Federation of Disability Sport, research suggests that participation in any sport or fitness activity, whether in a segregated environment (i.e. only individuals with disabilities participate) or an inclusive environment (i.e. individuals both with and without disabilities participate together) reduces loneliness and social isolation in individuals with disabilities.

Both of these types of programs offer numerous benefits to individuals with disabilities and help to decrease feelings of loneliness and increase opportunities for social interaction.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Greater self-sufficiency
  • Improved communication and social skills
  • Developing friendships
  • Opportunities to assume a leadership role as a coach or mentor

However, research suggests that individuals with disabilities garner even more benefits from physical activity when participating in an inclusive program. An inclusive environment offers opportunities and advantages that simply do not exist in segregated programs.

Inclusive fitness environments provide three major additional benefits:

1. Changing Perceptions

Participation by both individuals with and without disabilities can help erase the biggest barrier to meaningful social engagement among individuals with disabilities – society’s negative attitudes. When people participate in physical activity together, they:

  • Share common goals
  • Work together, thus acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others
  • Gain insight into the abilities and potential of others

These outcomes result in increased levels of social acceptance of individuals with disabilities by changing perceptions and decreasing negative stereotypes.

2. Building Community

One of the greatest factors driving loneliness in individuals with disabilities is the perception that they do not “belong” or “fit in” to society as a whole. Inclusive sports and physical activity programs are incredibly beneficial because they foster a sense of being part of the community.

This sense of community is important because:

  • Individuals expand their social networks to include people with more diverse backgrounds and experiences.
  • Unlike in segregated programs, inclusive programs provide the opportunity for everyone to participate so individuals with disabilities can enjoy time and exercise with non-disabled family and friends.
  • Perhaps most importantly, feeling like a part of a larger community has been shown to significantly reduce feelings of both loneliness and social isolation.

3. Developing Self-Confidence

Participation in inclusive sports and physical activity programs can help individuals with disabilities develop a sense of self-confidence, which can, in turn, lead to more plentiful and meaningful social interactions.

Inclusive physical activity for individuals with disabilities offers the opportunity to experience feelings of freedom and inclusion not typically experienced in everyday life. Over time, this self-confidence and self-esteem grow as individuals with disabilities feel accepted as peers.

Conclusion

As you can see, loneliness is a serious threat to both mental and physical health. Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities experience loneliness at much higher rates compared to those that are identified as non-disabled. Luckily, encouraging individuals with disabilities to be more active in inclusive sports and physical activity programs can help combat feelings of loneliness.

A man rolls in his wheelchair on the trail on the left while a woman cycles alongside him on the right.
A man rolls in his wheelchair on the trail while a woman cycles alongside him.

It takes each and every one of us to help make inclusive and accessible fitness available for all to enjoy. In order to make this a reality, however, we need to:

  • Create more inclusive opportunities in both sports and fitness programs
  • Ensure that staff are properly trained to support individuals with disabilities
  • Raise awareness about the importance of inclusive sports and physical activity programs

Are you interested in learning more about creating an inclusive fitness environment that everyone – no matter the age or ability – can enjoy? Check out our education and training offerings for more information.

Further Reading

English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS). (2014, August). Active together: Evidence-based report on how to provide sport or physical activity opportunities for disabled and non-disabled people to take part together. Retrieved from English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS): http://www.efds.co.uk/how-we-help/research/1836-active-together-august-2014

English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS). (2015, March). Talk to Me – Principles in Action. Retrieved from English Federation of Disability Sport: http://www.efds.co.uk/how-we-help/research/1878-talk-to-me-october-2014

Gupta, S. (2015, August 4). Why You Should Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness. Retrieved from Everyday Health: https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/loneliness-can-really-hurt-you/

Harvard Medical School. (2016, June). Loneliness has same risk as smoking for heart disease. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publications: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/loneliness-has-same-risk-as-smoking-for-heart-disease

Haugen, T., Säfvenbom, R., & Ommundsen, Y. (2013, May 4). Sport Participation and Loneliness in Adolescents: The Mediating Role of Perceived Social Competence. Current Psychology, 32(2), 203-216. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236693927_Sport_Participation_and_Loneliness_in_Adolescents_The_Mediating_Role_of_Perceived_Social_Competence

Mayer, W. E., & Anderson, L. S. (2014). Perceptions of People With Disabilities and Their Families about Segregated and Inclusive Recreation Involvement. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 48(2), 150-168. Retrieved from http://js.sagamorepub.com/trj/article/view/5192

Robins, L. M., Jansons, P., & Haines, T. (2016, January). The Impact of Physical Activity Interventions on Social Isolation Among Community – Dwelling Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Research & Reviews: Journal of Nursing & Health Sciences, 2(1), 62-71. Retreived from https://www.omicsonline.org/scholarly-articles/the-impact-of-physical-activity-interventions-on-social-isolationamong-communitydwelling-older-adults-a-systematic-review-70173.html

Sense. (2017). “Someone cares if I’m not there” Addressing loneliness in disabled people. Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, London. Retrieved from https://www.sense.org.uk/sites/default/files/loneliness_report_-_someone_cares_if_im_not_there.pdf

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