The University Record, November 12, 2001

Research finds treadmills help babies with Down syndrome

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

Dale Ulrich, associate professor of kinesiology, helps Down syndrome baby Kaitlyn Fellhauer strengthen her leg muscles on a treadmill. (Photo courtesy of Rosa Angulo-Kinzler)
Babies with Down syndrome can learn to walk earlier and better through regular exercise on a slow treadmill, according to research headed by Dale Ulrich, director of the Center for Motor Behavior in Down Syndrome at the Division of Kinesiology.

The research is in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics www.pediatrics.org, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Ulrich said practicing with a parent eight minutes a day, five days a week, on a slow treadmill resulted in children beginning to walk three and a half months sooner than those with Down syndrome who did not receive the treadmill exercise therapy.

Typically, babies with Down syndrome walk about one year later than their normally developing peers. This delay affects a child’s independence and other developmental milestones.

Once children can move on their own, Ulrich explained, they can learn about their environment. If they remain stationary, they get less input and the gap between their motor development and that of their peers grows. Also, once a child begins walking, there is a reduction in stress felt by parents, particularly the mother, Ulrich added.

Treadmill practice helps children develop leg strength and postural control, both of which are needed to walk, Ulrich said. It also demonstrates the necessary alternating leg motions used when he or she eventually will walk on their own.

Ulrich said he hopes the study will encourage pediatricians and parents to work on walking with Down syndrome children. Many caregivers are reluctant to encourage walking skills until a child masters crawling, but he believes it is important for children with Down syndrome to work on walking as early as possible.

Researchers involved in this study were Ulrich, associate professor of kinesiology; Beverly Ulrich, professor of kinesiology and dean of the division; Rosa M. Angulo-Kinzler, assistant professor of kinesiology; and Joonkoo Yun, a kinesiology graduate student at the time of the work. The work was supported by grants from the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research to Dale and Beverly Ulrich for $370,000, and from the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation to Dale Ulrich for $88,000.

For more information on the Center for Motor Behavior in Down Syndrome, visit the Web at www.umich.edu/%7Ecmbds/. To learn about the Division of Kinesiology go to www.umich.edu/~divkines/kinweb/.

For information about Down Syndrome, visit the National Down Syndrome Society Web site at www.ndss.org.