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Nutrition and exercise program shows promise in young adults with intellectual disabilities

Adhering to a diet and exercise program to manage health can be a challenge for anyone. But maintaining a healthy weight may present unique challenges for young adults with inherent barriers such as cognitive impairment.

A pilot study at the University of Cincinnati found that young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities (ID) were able to lose or maintain their weight with a system of education and support in place.

"It was a wonderful experience to work with the young adults and see them be empowered to select their health goals," says the study's lead author Laura Nabors, PhD, a professor in UC's School of Human Services in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services.

According to the pilot study, research shows that young adults with ASD and ID are at risk for being overweight or obese and may face higher levels of health risks for cardiovascular disease, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems and Type 2 diabetes.

Nabors, and a team of UC faculty, undergraduates and graduate students and a disability researcher at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, oversaw a nutrition and exercise instructional program that involved 17 participants and guardians. Over the course of a year, the team and participants met weekly (either in person or online during COVID-19 lockdowns) and were provided lessons on healthy eating and exercise.

The lessons focused on MyPlate (the U.S. Department of Agriculture's revised version of the food pyramid), portion sizes, vitamins and minerals in foods and learning to eat less of unhealthy food groups. Exercise lessons featured information about the importance of exercise, introduction to different types of exercise and knowledge about how exercise benefits the body. UC staff completed implementation logs and the height and weight of participants were examined at regular intervals. Parents completed surveys and participants completed group interviews to assess program impact.

The results, published in Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, were that two participants lost a significant amount of weight and others maintained their weight during the study. Participants and parents were satisfied with the program and reported knowledge and behavior change.

While the findings are preliminary, and research using control groups and assessing change in weight and behaviors over time are needed, the team concluded that intervention, overall, resulted in improved knowledge and health behaviors.

Read the article in its entirety at Medical Life & Sciences.

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