Exploring structured vs. unstructured exercise participation for persons with disabilities


Unstructured exercise (i.e., scheduled or unscheduled exercise undertaken without the guidance of an exercise professional) may address institutional barriers hindering exercise participation among people with disabilities. While unstructured exercise might ease accessibility, it is not a panacea for all. Some individuals prefer and even need structured exercise programs (i.e., regularly scheduled exercise led or prescribed by an exercise professional with consistent staff/volunteers to provide assistance). This study explored rates, correlates and outcomes of participation in structured versus unstructured exercise for persons with disabilities. Self-reported exercisers with a physical disability from across Canada (N=263, n=111 men, Mage= 58) completed an online survey prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents indicated whether they participated in structured exercise. Correlates of exercise participation (e.g., perceived stereotypes of disability, social support) and behavioural (LTPAQ-SCI) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g., quality of participation and life) were assessed. A minority of participants (18%; n=48) engaged in structured exercise. Predictors of participation in structured exercise included increased social support, experiences of stigma in an exercise setting, and social perceptions of competence among persons with disabilities, p<.05. Participation in structured exercise was associated with greater overall physical activity, satisfaction with life, and quality exercise participation compared to participants who engaged in unstructured exercise, p<.05. Prior to the pandemic, participating in structured exercise was associated with positive outcomes for persons with disabilities. As programs adjust to pandemic interruptions, COVID safe, stigma-free structured exercise opportunities must be explored. Further research is warranted to explore how to improve quality participation in unstructured exercise settings.