Campus: CSU, Long Beach -- February 16, 2000

Kinesiology/Physical Education Professor at Cal State Long Beach Studies the Effect of Physical Activity on Women Dealing with Disabilities

Throughout most of her academic career, Cal State Long Beach Professor Sharon Guthrie has conducted research examining the impact of physical activity (i.e., sport and exercise) on body image and self-esteem among girls and women.

With her most recent project, however, she decided to narrow her focus a bit more, looking at the role physical activity plays among women with disabilities.

"I have always been most interested in studying individuals who are marginalized in American society, and social phenomena that are in need of examination," says Guthrie, who sees herself as a social change agent.

In fact, the main reason the CSULB professor of kinesiology and physical education undertook this particular study was because people with disabilities, particularly females, are an understudied population.

Guthrie's research involved 37 women with disabilities, including those with physical mobility and chronic diseases. Her study examined whether participation in regular physical activity enhanced their ability to manage or cope with disability, physically and/or psychologically, and what role it played in the management process.

Her findings suggest that regular physical activity enhanced disability management among this group of women, albeit for different reasons. One group viewed physical activity as unpleasant work and were active for health or therapeutic reasons only. Their physical activity, primarily in exercise as opposed to sport, was fear-based. They exercised to avoid further disability or premature death.

Although this group used physical activity in some way to manage their disability, they tended to minimize the physical dimension of living as much as possible. Instead, they more often relied on mental and spiritual avenues for coping with their disabilities.

"The second group was much more physically-oriented, managing their disabilities by trying to normalize themselves, particularly their bodies, as much as possible," says Guthrie. "They used physical activity for the same purpose. For example, one person with acquired brain injury (ABI), who staggers when she walks, was exercising in hopes that she could lessen what she perceived to be her awkward movement."

The women in this second group used physical activity, again mostly exercise, to align themselves as much as possible with able-bodied standards. But, they placed far more emphasis on the significance of the body and physicality than those in the first group.

Finally, there was what Guthrie labeled the "optimizing mind-body functioning" group, which used physical activity, both in sport and exercise, to empower themselves psychologically and physically.

"This group seemed to adopt a more balanced mind-body approach to living with disability than either of the other groups," says Guthrie. "They felt both mental and physical strategies were important in managing disability. They also seemed to be developing their identities according to their own criteria, as opposed to those constructed by able-bodied society." Rather than focusing on normalizing or beautifying themselves via physical activity, this group used sport and exercise to rnaximize the functioning of their minds and bodies. Also, they were more likely than the other groups to view physical activity as intrinsically rewarding and as a significant part of their lives.

As a result, these women were continually seeking ways to improve the quality or quantity of their motor performances and to become physically and mentally stronger and more capable.

Guthrie found that women with congenital disabilities and longer disability ages (i.e., the length of time one has lived with disability) were most often members of the "optimizing mind-body functioning" group while the vast majority of women in the other groups had acquired disabilities and shorter disability ages.

She believes that such differences are likely due to the fact that women with congenital disabilities do not have "before and after" issues with which to contend and that women with longer disability ages have had more time to come to terms with their disabilities.

"The women who were using sport and exercise for physical and psychological empowerment seemed better able to focus on improving what functional abilities they did have and less on their disabled status," says Guthrie. "They were also better able to put a positive spin on disability--for example, seeing their disability as a growth experience or as an opportunity to challenge able-bodyism in society by being role models for other people with disabilities and dismantling stereotypes that women with disabilities are weak and helpless."

Overall, Guthrie's research showed that participation in various sports and exercise can benefit women with disabilities.

She is quick to point out, however, that "despite disability legislation, persons with disabilities continue to have limited entrance to physical activity spaces. As long as these constraints continue to exist, the ability of women with disabilities to transform themselves and able-bodyist notions of normality via physical activity is compromised."

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