When I’m running fitness classes for children with Down Syndrome, I find that (like all kids) they don’t do very well with the concept of sets and repetitions. The fastest way to lose a group of kids in an exercise session is to tell them to do ten of something, have them rest, then repeat the whole thing. It’s boring for them. Having said that, developing gross motor skills (i.e. the child being able to control their body) in conjunction with developing strength, endurance, and mobility is going to be very important for children with Down Syndrome. There are a number of exercises that I like to use to accomplish all of this. These exercises are also the warm-up for our Down with Fitness class. The exercises that I use fall into several categories:
• Walking silly
• Speed drills
• Agility drills
This is a great icebreaker for the children, for the parents and siblings that participate in the class, and it helps to get everyone loosened up. This involves waving the hands overhead, or waving them in front of the body (i.e. side to side movements), or making big circles with the arms while walking and swaying at the same time. There is no wrong way to perform this movement! It gets the upper and lower body loosened up, it’s fun, it’s silly, and it’s a great way to start a fitness class.
I like to use several exercises that any speed coach is going to recognize for children with Down Syndrome. These include:
• Leg swings: Hold the wall, swing one leg forward and backwards. Swing it side to side. Great way to loosen up the hips and forces the muscles of the hips and core to be trained during these exercises.
• High knee walk: Stand up tall, put your hands behind your head if you can, walk forward by lifting your knee up high (until the thigh is parallel to the ground). Forces the core to keep the child upright, develops the hip flexors and hip extensors.
• High knee skips: Skip, trying to lift each knee as high as possible.
• March, touch toes: For this exercise the child should keep their legs straight and move from their hips. Step forward with the left foot. Bend forward and touch the right hand to the left foot. Straighten up. Now step forward with the right foot. Touch the left hand to the right foot. Repeat for the desired distance. This is another great exercise for the hips but also really targets the hamstrings.
These are great exercises to develop lower body strength, endurance, as well as balance and coordination:
• Shuffle: Feet begin hip-width apart. Push off with the outside foot and step with the inside foot. In other words, if the child is shuffling to the right then they should push with the left foot and step with the right. Repeat for the desired distance and then move in the opposite direction. It’s not unusual to see parents standing in front of their kids when the kids perform this, sometimes it helps to hold their hands as this helps to focus them on the lateral movement.
• Walk backwards: I teach this from the athletic ready position (i.e. hips pushed back, knees slightly flexed). Again, it’s not unusual to have a parent helping the child to maintain their balance and to keep them focused on moving backwards.
I love crawls for incorporating the upper body into these exercises. I will pick an animal (crawl like a bear, or a lion, or a dinosaur) that we’ll imitate. With our hands on the ground, legs as straight as possible, and feet on the ground, we’ll crawl and roar like whatever animal we are imitating.
With this population, there’s a great deal of variation in the performance of the exercises and that is okay! The important point is that everyone is trying, being active, and having fun. The rest will come with time.
All the above usually takes the first 10-15 minutes of the Down with Fitness class. At the end of this, everyone is loosened up and has gotten in strength, speed, agility, and mobility work without knowing it!