Deafness and Exercise: what you need to know

Deafness and Exercise: what you need to know

Approximately 3.6 million people in Australia are affected by hearing loss. Older age and excessive exposure to loud noise are the leading causes. However, young people are also affected. Around 350 Australian children per year are diagnosed with permanent hearing loss. It’s estimated that, by the age of 17, approximately 39 children in 10,000 will have some type of hearing loss.

Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t identify as having a disability – it is a personal choice. However, deafness is often linked with conditions, such as genetic syndromes, that lead to physical and/or intellectual disabilities. It’s estimated that between 30-40% of children who are deaf or hard of hearing have an additional disability.

THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE

While exercise cannot ‘treat’ deafness, it’s a vital component of a healthy lifestyle – irrespective of your hearing ability. Regular exercise has well-known benefits to physical health, including improved weight, blood pressure and cholesterol management and reduced risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Exercise also has important mental health benefits. It triggers the release of natural mood-boosting chemicals, enhances sleep, and has been shown to be effective for managing depression symptoms.

Regular exercise also boosts brain health. Given that untreated hearing loss has been linked with an increased risk of memory loss, physical activity may be especially important for maintaining brain function in people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Furthermore, if you have a disability associated with deafness, you may be at higher risk for developing a long-term physical or mental health condition. Exercise is an important way to break the cycle of disability and poorer health.

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POTENTIAL BARRIERS TO EXERCISE

People who are deaf or hard of hearing can face barriers to achieving adequate physical activity levels. For example, research found four common themes could become either barriers to, or facilitators of, physical activity in older adults who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  • use of effective communication strategies – such as lip reading and sign language
  • access to visual and technical support – such as the use of cards to illustrate exercises
  • environment – such as adequate lighting
  • type of physical activity – such as water-based exercises which require removal of hearing aids

Barriers like these can lead to long-term physical inactivity. For example, research found children and adolescents with a hearing impairment had reduced levels of physical activity compared to their peers without a hearing impairment. Another study found hearing loss was significantly associated with lower levels of physical activity, and more time spent in sedentary behaviours, in adults aged 60-69 years.

In turn, a sedentary lifestyle is linked with a higher risk of many chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, some cancers, osteoporosis and depression. It is therefore important that people who are deaf or hard of hearing find an opportunity to exercise, that overcomes the aforementioned barriers to physical activity, so that they are engaging in a sufficient amount each week to reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases.

TYPES OF EXERCISE RECOMMENDED

Because exercise does not reduce or reverse hearing loss, the type of exercise should be chosen based on your needs and goals. For example, a person who is deaf and has an additional disability that affects muscle tone will need a program that emphasises building muscle strength. A person who is deaf and doesn’t have an additional disability may not need to focus so much on strength development.

Most people, including those who are deaf, will benefit from a range of exercises designed to build cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and balance.

THINGS TO BE AWARE OF

Some thought is necessary when designing exercise programs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Firstly, the hearing loss itself may necessitate modifications to how exercise programs are delivered. For example, in team sports where coaches and umpires/referees normally rely on whistles, other means may be necessary. Additionally, for some people, group fitness environments may be difficult to engage with.

Secondly, care is needed when deafness is associated with an additional disability. More than 400 syndromes involve a hearing loss. These syndromes can also cause a wide range of other physical, mental, behavioural and social issues. Examples include heart defects, musculoskeletal conditions, vision problems, depression, and concerning behaviours.

This means numerous factors may need to be considered when designing a safe and effective program.

SPEAK TO THE EXERCISE PROFESSIONALS

ESSA accredited exercise professionals are trained to understand factors that can be associated with deafness or hearing loss in people of all ages. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist or Accredited Exercise Scientist can design an exercise program that takes your health needs into consideration, tailoring it to meet your needs, goals and exercise preferences. The important thing is finding a program that works for you, and an accredited exercise professional can help with this.

Your program will start at an intensity that matches your current physical condition and will progress as your fitness improves. The accredited exercise professional will ensure you’re performing exercises safely and correctly and, if needed, can train your support people to assist with your program.

Some Accredited Exercise Physiologists have a special interest in working with people with disability. They will work alongside you, and your support people, to help you achieve optimal health, independence and quality of life.

Click here to find an accredited exercise professional near you.

Expert Contributors: Amanda Semaan and Kara Foscholo, Accredited Exercise Physiologists and Co-Directors of Active Ability

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