Sports and Recreation

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2021

Children with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) can enjoy many of the same recreational activities as their peers. Exercise and recreation are important for children with SMA to maintain range of motion, muscle strength, and overall health. Team sports and activities can also help children feel more connected to their community and environment.

However, it is important to pick activities that do not cause fatigue or discomfort. Talk to your doctor about what exercises or sports are good for your child. Also look for adaptive sports programs, specialized summer camps, and other activities for children with SMA.

How is exercise helpful for children with SMA?

It can be challenging for children with SMA to stay active. SMA causes arm and leg muscle weakness and problems with breathing. This limits mobility and often causes children to fatigue easier.1

However, some studies suggest that staying inactive can make SMA symptoms worse. This includes worsening muscle weakness, joint contractures, and breathing. Staying active can strengthen muscles, improve energy, and maintain overall physical and mental health.1-3

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Team sports and social activities are especially beneficial for children with SMA. A physical disability can feel isolating for children. Playing or competing with peers can help children feel more connected to their community.4

Some of the ways physical activity helps people with neuromuscular conditions include:5

  • Protecting joints from stiffness
  • Strengthening joints to prevent injuries
  • Maintaining range of motion and blood flow
  • Allowing exploration of interests and environment
  • More socializing

How can children with SMA exercise safely?

Doctors usually recommend that children with SMA should participate in as much physical activity as possible. However, children should be careful not to overdo it. Avoid extreme activities and stop before feeling fatigued, pain, or discomfort.2,3,6

Some studies have shown that exercising too much can over-fatigue muscles. Talk to your doctor about any activities or sports your child wants to participate in. They can suggest ways to enjoy these activities safely.

For example, they can recommend exercises to warm up, such as stretching. They can also suggest supportive equipment that can be used while exercising.3,6

What sports and activities can children with SMA participate in?

Infants and toddlers with SMA can play with many of the same toys as their peers. Toys and games can also be modified to fit personal needs. CureSMA provides care packages for children with type 2 and 3 SMA with toys suggested by other SMA families.7,8

Children and teens with SMA can participate in adaptive sports. These can be competitive or recreational and are adapted for people with physical limitations.

Specialized equipment and adapted rules help people participate in the activity. Some common adaptive sports are soccer, basketball, and tennis.7

Many communities have adaptive sports organizations with programs for children with SMA. Communities may also have accessible playgrounds or specialized summer camps designed for kids with neuromuscular conditions. At these summer camps, they can stay active while forming social connections with other kids with similar experiences.7

Exercising regularly in a warm pool can be helpful for children with SMA. This includes jumping, walking, and swimming. Warm water helps relax muscles and promotes flexibility. The buoyancy of water also reduces pressure on joints and allows for a larger range of motion. Blowing bubbles in water can also help make chest muscles stronger. Other activities that are helpful for children with SMA include:9,10

  • Biking on stationary or adaptive bikes
  • Yoga
  • Movement-promoting video games
  • Horseback riding
  • Games that require reaching or stretching for objects

Only a few studies have looked at the benefits of specific activities for kids with SMA. We still need larger studies to determine what types of exercises are most helpful for children with SMA.6,11