PARTICIPATION IN SPECIAL OLYMPICS LINKED TO REDUCED RISK OF DIABETES AMONG INDIVIDUALS WITH INTELLECTUAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES

July 3, 2024 – TORONTO, ON

New research led by the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University and published in Diabetic Medicine has revealed that participation in Special Olympics programming is associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes among adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The study, led by Dr. Meghann Lloyd, Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University, examined the diabetes status of more than 35,000 young adults with IDD in Ontario from 1995 to 2015. 

The new long-term population level research utilizes statistical modeling of Special Olympics registration data and administrative health records held at ICES. Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were categorized into participants and non-participants of Special Olympics. Diabetes diagnosis rates among these groups were calculated and compared over the 20-year period, revealing significant results:

This study finds a

15%

rate reduction

in diabetes for adults with IDD who participate in Special Olympics, 
compared to adults with IDD who do not participate, over a period of up to 20 years.

● People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) have higher rates of diabetes compared to the general population.

● Special Olympics is a relatively low-cost intervention (compared to the cost of treating diabetes), and our results indicate a significant health-promoting effect to participation.

● Age, sex, community (rural vs urban), affluence, and morbidity of individuals did not influence the outcome of the study.

● Over the 20-year period, adults with IDD who do not participate in Special Olympics had a rate of diabetes of 11.01 per 1000 person years compared to for Special Olympics participants. 8.41 per 1,000 person years for Special Olympics participants.

“This is the first time that we have very strong, population-level evidence for a significant physical health benefit of participating in Special Olympics for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Dr. Meghann Lloyd, Lead Author and Researcher with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University. “This ground-breaking study strongly demonstrates that engagement in Special Olympics goes beyond mere recreation. It provides compelling evidence that participation fosters considerable health improvements, reinforcing the notion that such inclusive sports programs are vital for the holistic well-being of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The health advantages observed underscore the importance of supporting and expanding access to these programs. Our findings advocate for the broader adoption of Special Olympics as a critical component of public health strategies aimed at improving the quality of life for this population.”

“This is the first time that we have very strong,
population-level evidence for a significant physical health benefit
of participating in Special Olympics for adults
with intellectual and developmental disabilities,”

- Dr. Meghann Lloyd -
Lead Author and Researcher

Research shows lower levels of physical activity as a primary reason why young adults with IDD are at a higher risk of developing diabetes compared to their peers without IDD. Special Olympics offers a unique opportunity for young adults with IDD to enhance their physical activity levels while also gaining access to Special Olympics Canada’s various health screenings and educational resources, while fostering social connections in an inclusive community. By comparing the diabetes rates among Special Olympics participants with those who did not participate, the research found that the risk of diabetes was significantly lower among participants.

"While we have long observed these positive outcomes for Special Olympics athletes firsthand, it's gratifying to have research that supports what we've always believed,” says Gail Hamamoto, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics Canada. "Given that diabetes is one of the most prevalent, debilitating and costly diseases to the Canadian healthcare system, it's remarkable to witness the impact of Special Olympics. This new study reveals that Special Olympics athletes have a 15% reduced risk of diabetes compared to non-participants. We now know that participation in our programs not only enhances the overall well-being of each Special Olympics athlete by promoting physical, mental and emotional wellness through activity and social inclusion - but could also bring significant socio-economic benefits for all Canadians.”

"While we have long observed these positive outcomes for Special Olympics athletes firsthand,
it's gratifying to have research that supports what we've always believed,”

- Gail Hamamoto -
CEO, Special Olympics Canada

The compelling findings underscore the critical role of inclusive community-based physical activity programs in improving the lives of individuals with IDD. Special Olympics Canada remain committed to expanding access to these transformative programs, fostering a healthier and more inclusive society for everyone.

READ THE ORIGINAL PAPER
PUBLISHED IN DIABETIC MEDICINE

STORIES

Isaiah John

Special Olympics Athlete

When Isaiah John, or “IJ” as his friends call him, joined Special Olympics in 2003 at the age of 16, he had no idea how profoundly it would change his life. Introduced to the program by a support worker, IJ decided to try floor hockey as his first sport. From the very first practice, he fell in love with the game. 

Shortly after joining, IJ faced a significant challenge. At 18, he was diagnosed with genetic Type 2 Diabetes. “When I got diagnosed, I was so confused,” IJ recalls. “It was so hard to explain to people that I have problems with my sugar levels. You’d get up and start your day all excited but then you would have breakfast and wait to see how you’re going to feel for the rest of your day. It’s a battle every day – but the most helpful thing has been finding routine.” 

While new research reveals a 15% rate reduction in diabetes for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who participate in Special Olympics, IJ’s story illustrates how participation in these programs can also help manage existing diagnoses. Special Olympics offers more than just sport; it provides a holistic approach to wellness that includes physical activity, health & nutrition education and social inclusion. 

“Even though it’s a disease you can fight, it always helps to have someone that has your back,” IJ says. “When I was younger I wasn’t as confident and didn’t have a routine, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found the lifestyle that works for me – and that’s because of Special Olympics and staying active and eating healthy.”

“Even though it’s a disease you can fight,
it always helps to have someone that has your back,”

- Isaiah John -
Special Olympics Athlete

Though he began with floor hockey, IJ’s passion now lies in softball. For nearly 20 years, he has played with the Special Olympics Central Jays, earning several gold medals along the way. His involvement also boosted his confidence to join other co-ed leagues in his community. He is active four days a week, and on his days off, he misses it. “The more active I am, the easier it is to manage my sugar levels. I also have to eat a certain way to be able to keep my lifestyle. It’s not just a lifestyle, it’s a way to live. My sports keep me motivated to keep eating healthy so I can perform at my best.” 

There have been challenges along the way. IJ recalls a tournament where he forgot to eat before playing. “I managed to play the first game but almost passed out a couple of times. If my sugar is dropping I sometimes shake my head a lot – if my coaches or teammates notice this they’ll always check in. That day my coaches made sure I got looked at by medical and had something to eat. They also supported my decision to sit out the afternoon – sometimes you need to know when to stop, and when that happens it feels good to have your team backing you up. I’ve met a lot of people I can count on over the years with Special Olympics.” 

IJ’s story is a testament to the transformative power of Special Olympics. The structure and support have helped him manage his health, both physically and emotionally. “I’ve had spikes over the years – lots of highs and lows before where I have no energy – and when I tell my doctors they always encourage me to keep taking care of myself and keeping up with my sports and nutrition. But it’s through my own willpower and the support from my family and friends at Special Olympics that I keep doing what I’m supposed to do.” 

He strongly advocates for others with intellectual or developmental disabilities, whether they have a diabetes diagnosis or not, to take advantage of Special Olympics’ Healthy Athletes program and other nutrition resources. “We’ve even had an expert come in for practice and give training on healthy eating to fuel our bodies for sport and it was really good,” he shares. 

Special Olympics, IJ says, is what keeps him going. “I try to stay active and keep healthy so that I can play for as long as I can, to the best of my ability. Because this is what I want to do for a long time.” For IJ, being part of Special Olympics is more than just participating in sports; it’s about being part of something bigger. “I have to be out of the house and doing something – it’s the most important part of my routine.” 

IJ is also open about his past struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol, hoping his story will inspire others. “I was going through a difficult time with my health and a few other things… and I just thought it couldn’t get any worse. Turns out it could.” Through the concern and support of his friends at Special Olympics, IJ has been sober since 2015. “Replace your unhealthy addictions with healthy ones. I always tell people I get high on life now – I love sports. It will get better. Find your community, something you’re passionate about and that fits into a healthy lifestyle. You don’t have to take this on alone.” 

Reflecting on his journey with Special Olympics, IJ says, “People always ask me why I keep going back to the same team season after season and I just tell them it’s the highlight of my week, I really enjoy it, and I feel so much healthier and better about who I am as a person. Special Olympics is my second home – it has been for over 20 years.”

Interview

Dr. Meghann Lloyd

Ontario Tech University

What do these research findings mean to Special Olympics?

This research study found a 15% rate reduction in being diagnosed with diabetes for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who participate in Special Olympics, when followed for up to 20 years, compared to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who did not. 

Most Special Olympics programming is recreational and provides opportunities to train, practice and compete regularly at the local community level making it highly accessible to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to providing physical activity and sport opportunities, Special Olympics also has a focus on inclusion and acceptance with strong social and health promotion components all at low, or no-cost, to participants. Special Olympics is unique in that participants can enter, and participate, at any time across the lifespan, and there is no prerequisite skill level for participation. The results of this study show that there is a health benefit to participating in Special Olympics. 

This is the first time that we have very strong, population level, evidence for a physical health benefit of participating in Special Olympics for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This means that participating in Special Olympics is good for your health, in addition to being an opportunity for fun, to meet new people, to be social, engage in competitions and sport.

Why is this study important?

Diabetes is a chronic condition in which a person consistently experiences high blood sugar levels due to the body’s inability to produce, or properly use, insulin; and can lead to serious health complications. Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and more challenging to manage. This means it is very important to try to prevent it. 

There is strong evidence that participating in physical activity is an effective way to prevent Type 2 diabetes in the general population, and this recent research paper found that for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, participating in Special Olympics can positively reduce the rate of diabetes.

What inspired you to work with Special Olympics and validate the impact Special Olympics has on the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

I am a kinesiology professor with a focus on physical activity and health for people with disabilities. I know firsthand the impact of participating in physical activity or sport can have on a person with an intellectual or developmental disability. I have always been interested in how to include people with disabilities in physical activity so that they might get all the benefits that physical activity provides. These benefits include, social opportunities, cognitive gains, skill building opportunities, higher levels of fitness, and overall health and wellbeing. Special Olympics Canada is a leader in promoting sport, physical activity, and health for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and I am honoured to have been working with Special Olympics Canada for my whole career on various projects.

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