In addition to finding the best treatment options available for individuals with cerebral palsy (CP), it’s also important for them to develop positive health and wellness habits and behaviors.
This can help them better deal with their particular type and severity of CP—from both a physical and mental standpoint. It also involves regular physical activity (if possible), as well as tending to their nutritional needs.
CP and Physical Activity
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health.”
Not only does it help strengthen muscles and bones, but it also lowers your risk of chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
All of these are beneficial to the population as a whole, but they are even more important for individuals with CP.
For instance, a stronger body means better muscle control, which translates into better coordination and balance—and fewer falls. Because CP increases a person’s risk of developing other chronic conditions, physical activity can help to lower this risk.
Regular exercise also leads to the higher likelihood of an increased lifespan, which is beneficial as well.
The CDC adds that there is a mental component to regular physical activity, because it helps boost mood, improves outlook on life, and reduces the likelihood of depression.
It can even improve the quality of your sleep, all of which are factors that can help individuals with CP better cope with this disease, its symptoms, and its effects on everyday living.
How much exercise should someone with CP get?
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recommends that children engage in one hour of exercise daily, whereas adults should aim for a minimum of two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity activity per week.
If individuals are unable to meet these suggested amounts, such as when the CP is more severe and inhibits movement, the ODPHP explains that they should then “engage in regular physical activity according to their abilities.”
The primary goal of these recommendations is to reduce inactivity as much as possible so the individual receives the benefits of regular physical exercise. This may require adjusting the guidelines to meet individual limitations and needs.
Regardless of actual amount, the ODPHP also stresses that when someone has a chronic condition like CP, one’s doctors should always be consulted first to make sure it is safe to exercise. This also provides an opportunity for the medical professionals to share advice as to which types of activities would be okay to participate in and which ones should be avoided.
Some treatment methods—physical therapy, occupational therapy, and recreation therapy—can help meet these activity guidelines, but there are many other physical activities that can help children and adults with CP get and stay more active.
What types of activity are best for individuals with CP?
According to the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDP), some of the activities and exercises most suitable for individuals with CP include:
- Stationary bicycling, strapping the feet to the pedals if necessary to assist in the pedaling motion
- Swimming and other water exercises
- Going up the stairs, using a hand rail for safety if needed
- Using upper extremity exercisers, which are devices that you place on a table that are “like bicycles for your upper body with handles”
- Exercise band exercises, whether directed at the upper body, lower body, or to get a full body workout
- Adaptive exercise programs, or exercise programs related to sports and fitness that have been adapted for individuals with physical limitations
- Dynamic stretching, contracting muscles throughout the stretch to improve function and reduce injury
Tips for getting started
If physical activity is new, the AACPDP suggests these tips for getting started:
- Choose a fun and friendly exercise environment, whether this is at home or a gym or recreational center that offers classes where social needs can be met as well.
- Set goals to help motivate and encourage regular physical activity.
- Wear comfortable clothes, dressing for the weather if you’re going to be outdoors.
- Do warm-up stretches as these can help prepare the muscles for greater activity, reducing the risk of injury.
- Follow safety precautions. For instance, if the activity involves riding a bike, a helmet is a must.
- Start slowly. Give your body time to adjust by increasing your time and intensity gradually over time.
- Aim for variety. Muscles need time to rest, so do different activities on different days so you don’t overwork the same muscles from one day to the next.
- Expect muscle soreness for the first couple of days, at least until the body adjusts.
If at any time, something doesn’t feel right—if there is difficulty breathing, chest pain, faintness, nausea, or severe pain—stop immediately and check with your doctor before trying to exercise again.
Nutritional Considerations Related to CP
The other half of the health equation is dietary in nature, and the ODPHP shares that it is just as important as physical activity because the nutrients we consume can help us live a higher quality of life while also helping to prevent the development of future diseases and conditions.
This can present some issues for individuals with CP, especially because one of its common characteristics is difficulty eating, swallowing, and sucking.
The Mayo Clinic stresses that malnutrition is often an issue for individuals with CP, especially infants. And when they struggle with the eating process, it’s easy for them to not obtain the nutrients they need to live a healthy life.
In these types of cases, a feeding tube may be necessary to help ensure that minimum nutritional levels are met. In less severe cases of CP, parents, family members, and caretakers can provide assistance with the eating process and improve nutrition by:
- Reinforcing safe eating postures, such as sitting versus lying and having them place their arms on their chest so they don’t lean back
- Using utensils that are easy to hold, like those with larger handles
- Preparing easy-to-eat foods, primarily soft foods like mashed potatoes and oatmeal
- Placing a hand against their cheek to aid in jaw control if that is an issue
Sometimes the medications prescribed to CP patients can hinder the nutritional process as well. For instance, research published in the journal Clinical Therapeutics highlights that anticonvulsants (which are used to help prevent seizures) can inhibit the body’s absorption and use of folate.
If laxatives and diuretics are used on a regular basis, they can potentially lead to nutritional deficiencies. Laxatives prevent food from staying in the intestines long enough to be absorbed and the University of Maryland Medical Center shares that diuretics can deplete a person’s levels of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin B1 (thiamine).
That makes it all the more important to discuss these issues with your medical professionals, because supplementation may be necessary as part of the treatment plan to ensure that all nutrients are received in their minimum recommended amounts.