Fort Myers physical therapists

FOCUS Physical Therapists Can Help Kids With Down Syndrome Stay Fit, Active & Healthy

Our FOCUS physical therapists have been closely watching and cheering the historic story of 21-year-old Chris Nikic in Panama City, Florida, who recently became the first person with Down syndrome to compete in and finish an Ironman competition. It’s not a feat for the faint of heart, requiring a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2 mile run – all within 17 hours.

“I am going to make history by crushing it,” the Maitland man said before the competition.

And crush it, he did.

“You have shattered barriers while proving without a doubt that Anything is Possible!” Ironman Florida posted on its Facebook page.

Nikic family photo, published by The Today Show

Nikic later attributed his accomplishment to waking up every morning and committing himself to be 1 percent better than he was the day before.

“I have to work hard and give my best every day,” he said. 

Our FOCUS physical therapists believe in this message 100 percent! We also believe that reaching this level of fitness is much more likely for individuals with Down syndrome with early intervention, address the most common physical health challenges and concerns in early childhood. The sooner we start, the less they have to catch up and the healthier they’ll be.

How Physical Therapists Help

Some common physical health concerns for people with Down syndrome include:

  • Low muscle tone
  • Lower bone density
  • Decreased strength
  • Delayed motor development
  • Postural and balance difficulties
  • Feeding problems
  • Challenges with hand use
  • Vision and hearing trouble
  • Degenerative joint disease
  • Obesity
  • Congenital heart conditions

Physical therapists are important partners in helping to boost the health and fitness of children diagnosed with Down syndrome, and we believe early intervention is central to that. Specifically, our physical therapists at FOCUS work with children who have Down syndrome to improve muscle strength, balance, coordination, and movement skills to improve independence with daily activities and overall quality of life.

An individualized physical therapy treatment plan for a child with Down syndrome will depend on their age, the type of Down syndrome they have, the specifics of their health and their/their parents goals. Treatment plan goals may include:

  • Strength-building. Our FOCUS physical therapists will teach your child how to do a number of different exercises to help bolster their strength. We can also come up with several fun tasks and games that will help them as they grow, as well as new fitness challenges to help keep up their heart health and lower the risk of obesity.
  • Boosting developmental skills. Mastering motor skills like crawling, sitting up, standing and walking are essential to independent function, but it is often more difficult/takes longer for children with Down syndrome. Physical therapists can provide hands-on training to the child and caregivers to help with positioning, movement, feeding and play. (Occupational therapists also team up on this as well, and can offer ways to encourage movement development, which in turn helps with communication, play and learning.)
  • Improving posture, balance and coordination. Certain kinds of equipment can be helpful to a child learning to hold their head up, remain sitting up or learning to walk. From there, we may progress to things like jumping, skipping, running and dribbling.
  • Promoting healthy living and physical fitness. We’ll work with you and your child, especially as they get older, to determine diet, exercises and community involvement programs that will help them maintain active, healthy lives. We encourage kids to get involved in sports and recreation, and we can advise on alternative options or work-arounds where health concerns may be an impediment.

Growing Number of Athletes With Down Syndrome

As the Special Olympics has shown ever since the first games in 1968, people with Down syndrome have proven the ability to be versatile athletes (swimming, track & field, gymnastics, etc.). Now, they are increasingly beginning to compete in endurance sports like the cross country, bicycling, swimming and even the Ironman triathlon.

In addition to Chris Nikic, we’ve loved following the success of:

  • Jon Stoklosa of Delaware. He began weightlifting when he was 12-years-old and was benching 225 pounds by age 16. He won a gold medal at the Special Olympics World Games in 1999, but soon after started branching out to mainstream competitions. Now, he competes about twice annually in power lifting against typical athletes.
  • Chelsea Werner of California. An athlete and international model, Werner is a multi-time champion of the Special Olympics in gymnastics. She first won the 2012 Special Olympics national Gymnastics Championships in 2012 – and has won it three times since while being a two-time defending World Champion.
  •  Irem Öztekin of Turkey. She broke two world records in the European Swimming Championships and has won more than 100 medals in 10 international competitions. Now at age 19, she has been accepted into Ege University’s coaching program, where she’ll learn to help other youth with Down syndrome achieve their swimming goals. 

These are the trailblazers, who may have reached a lot of firsts, but we expect they’ll be far from the last.

Of course, there is no guarantee that anyone – typically developing or otherwise – will become a star athlete when they grow up. But our goal as pediatric physical therapists is to ensure that our young patients are healthy, thriving and developing and have as few barriers as possible to achieving their dreams – however big they are.

We don’t want anything holding them back in life!

FOCUS offers pediatric physical therapy to children in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Bonita Springs and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

‘I am going to make history’: Man vows to become 1st Ironman finisher with Down syndrome, Nov. 6, 2020, By Meghan Holohan, The Today Show

More Blog Entries:

FOCUS Fort Myers Pediatric Physical Therapists Dedicated to Top Quality Treatment of Sports Injuries, Aug. 6, 2020, FOCUS Fort Myers Physical Therapists’ Blog

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