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Cerebral palsy: does it benefit children to stand up and exercise during lessons?

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Almost 2,000 babies born each year in the UK have cerebral palsy.1,2 They face lifelong difficulties with movement and coordination, which vary greatly from one child to another, but can mean children spend long periods of time sitting down. Professor Helen Dawes, of Oxford Brookes University, is investigating the potential benefits of a classroom-based exercise programme for children with cerebral palsy. Hopes are high, as young people who are more active tend to have better health and greater academic success – effects that last into adulthood and boost life chances.

Action Medical Research and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Charitable Trust are jointly funding this research.​

How are children’s lives affected now?

Being physically active every day is important for healthy growth and development. Sadly, that’s not always easy for children with cerebral palsy – the commonest physical disability of childhood. While some children with cerebral palsy have only minor problems, others can be severely disabled. They tend to be less active and less fit than other children.

“Many children with cerebral palsy spend more time than their peers sitting down,” says Professor Dawes. “A lack of physical activity can cause a range of different problems. It can reduce children’s endurance levels and muscle strength. It may cause secondary conditions, such as long-term pain, fatigue and osteoporosis. And children who sit a lot, and are less active, are also more likely to become overweight and develop insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. We now know that lack of activity may also be affecting academic performance”

We urgently need ways to help children with cerebral palsy to be more physically active as they go about their day-to-day lives.

How could this research help?

“We are investigating whether a school-based exercise programme benefits children with cerebral palsy,” explains Professor Dawes. “School-based activities enable all children to benefit, whatever their background. Our new programme would involve children taking regular breaks during lessons to stand up and join structured physical activity sessions in their classroom, with help if needed.”

Thirty six children with cerebral palsy from both mainstream and special schools are taking part in a pilot study.  The researchers aim to find answers to some important early questions:

  • Is the exercise programme feasible?
  • Does the programme benefit children and, if so, how?

“In theory, it’s possible that scheduling regular breaks in the school day for physical activity sessions could have wide-ranging benefits, improving children’s academic performance, strength, mobility and their overall health and wellbeing,” says Professor Dawes. This pilot study is an important first step towards finding out whether what’s true in theory is also true in practice.


1. NHS Choices. Cerebral palsy.  Website accessed 30 August 2017.

2. Office for National Statistics. Overview of the UK population: July 2017. Figure 5: UK births, deaths and natural change, 1956 to 2016. Accessed 30 August 2017





Project Leader Professor Helen Dawes PhD MMedSci MCSP
Project Team Johnny Collett PhDDr Shelly Coe PhDMr Tim Theologis MSc PhD FRCS
Project Location Department of Sport and Heath Sciences, Oxford Brookes University
Project Location Other Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, Oxford University Hospitals NHSFT
Date awarded 31 July 2017
Project start date 1 March 2018
Project end date 31 August 2021
Grant amount £144,436
Grant code GN2597


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