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.


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

The Future of Fitness Trackers Looks Brighter for Wheelchair Users

Just look around and it will probably come as no surprise that activity/fitness trackers are hot.  Wherever you go, you see someone with a device strapped to their wrist, clipped to their belt, or stashed in a pocket.  Every step, heartbeat, and calorie burned is captured, tracked, and analyzed.

As a matter of fact, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recently released the results of its annual survey of health and fitness trends and named wearable technology as the hottest fitness trend for 2017.  Recent studies support the skyward trend of activity trackers and other wearable devices, with sales increasing an estimated 29% between 2015 and 2016, from 78.1 million to 102 million units sold.

Even with the impressive growth in sales, activity tracker manufacturers have neglected a significant market segment – wheelchair users.  Up until recently, there were no activity trackers on the market that accommodated the needs of wheelchair users.  Traditionally, activity trackers use algorithms that measure two major components of a taking a step – arm swing and heel strike.  Obviously, there is no heel strike involved in pushing a wheelchair, so the traditional algorithms fail for wheelchair users.  In order to accurately measure activity for wheelchair users, manufacturers have to redesign the way that the tracker looks at movement.  Fortunately, a few companies have taken on this challenge and, finally, activity trackers for wheelchair users are beginning to emerging on the market.

The First:  The Apple Watch

As a leader in accessible technology, Apple was the first major player in the wearable device market to release a that accurately track activity for wheelchair users.  The release of watchOS 3.0 in September 2016, gave wheelchair users the first opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of activity tracking technology.  In addition to a number of new and improved accessibility options for individuals with vision impairments, hearing impairments, and motor skill impairments, Apple updated its Activity and Workout apps to be inclusive of wheelchair users.

Here is an overview of each app and some of the features designed specifically for wheelchair users.

Activity App

The Activity app is designed to measure overall activity throughout the day.  It allows the user to set daily activity goals and share data with friends.  The app provides progress updates and coaching along the way and awards an achievement badge when a goal is reached.

Activity app now includes the following features for wheelchair users:

  • Wheelchair users can change the series of three rings displayed in the daily activity snapshot from Stand, Exercise, and Move to Roll, Exercise, and Move.
  • The Roll goal replaces the Stand goal for wheelchair users. Users can set an automatic “time to roll” notification to alert them every hour and remind them to user to stretch and/or roll for one minute.
  • Wheelchair users can track distance, speed and calories burned when wheeling, since the app measures pushes rather than steps. To increase the accuracy for wheelchair users, the formulas used to calculate each takes into consideration factors such as the rolling surface (soft vs. hard), incline/decline, and the height of the wheelchair seat and wheels.

Workout App

The Workout app is designed to give feedback during a specific workout.  Users can set workout goals time, distance, or calories. During the workout, the app provides progress updates and notifies the user when the goal is reached.

The app provides two wheelchair-specific workouts for outdoor pushing – Outdoor Wheelchair Walk Pace (for workouts done at or about a running speed) and Outdoor Wheelchair Run Pace (for workouts done at or about a running speed).  Each workout measures time, pace, distance, calories, and heart rate.

The Future:  Accenture Freewheel

Freewheel, a prototype designed and developed by Accenture Interactive’s Chaotic Moon Studios, shows promise as another viable contender in the activity tracker market for wheelchair users.  The prototype and associated app recently won the Grand Prix at the at 10th anniversary Dadi Awards (The Drum Awards for the Digital Industries).

The idea for Freewheel was hatched by Tyler Hively, a Chaotic Moon content strategist and wheelchair user.  Faced with a lack of viable activity trackers for wheelchair users, Hively pitched his idea to management and the project was launched.

Freewheel takes a different approach to wearable technology for wheelchair users.  Unlike the Apple Watch, Freewheel isn’t worn on the user’s body.  Instead, the device attaches directly to the user’s wheelchair.  Freewheel measures speed, acceleration, distance, altitude, incline and decline using Hall effect sensors, a barometer, a gyroscope and an accelerometer.  The device then transmits the data to the user’s phone, smartwatch, or another device via Bluetooth.

Freewheel is currently in the development stages and does not have a release date set.  Hopefully this exciting new product will be on the market soon, providing wheelchair users with another option for easy, accurate activity tracking.

To learn more about Freewheel, view the project video here.

The Vision:  Fitness Tracking for All

While it is encouraging to see companies like Apple and Accenture developing fitness tracking devices for wheelchair users, there is still a lot of room for growth.  The Apple Watch accounted for just 20% of the market share of wearable sales in 2015.  That means that the other 80% of products on market, including the industry-leading FitBit, are not usable by wheelchair users.  It is time that all companies begin to see that designing fitness trackers that are usable by all not only serves the needs of the disability community but is also good business.

Are you a wheelchair user that uses an Apple watch or other fitness tracking device?  We would love to hear from you!  Share your experiences with our community in the Comments section below.