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Participation in Special Olympics linked to reduced risk of diabetes among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities


Independent study finds participants are 15 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes

July 3, 2024 – TORONTO, ON – New research led by the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University and published in Diabetic Medicine, reveals participation in Special Olympics programming is associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes among adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

The study led by Dr. Meghann Lloyd at Ontario Tech, examines the diabetes status of more than 35,000 young adults with IDD in Ontario from 1995 to 2015.

The new long-term population level research utilizes statistical modelling of Special Olympics registration data and administrative health records held at ICES. Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were categorized into participants and non-participants of Special Olympics. Diabetes diagnosis rates among these groups were calculated and compared over the 20-year study period, revealing significant results:

  • People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) have higher rates of diabetes compared to the general population.
  • This study finds a 15 per cent rate reduction in diabetes for adults with IDD who participate in Special Olympics, compared to adults with IDD who do not participate, over a period of up to 20 years.
  • Over the 20-year period, adults with IDD who do not participate in Special Olympics had a rate of diabetes of 11.01 per 1000 person years, compared to 8.41 per 1,000 person years for Special Olympics participants.
  • Age, sex, type of community (rural vs urban), affluence, and morbidity of individuals did not influence the outcome of the study.
  • Special Olympics is a relatively low-cost intervention (compared to the cost of treating diabetes), and our results indicate a significant health-promoting effect to participation.

“This is the first time that we have very strong, population-level evidence for a significant physical health benefit of participating in Special Olympics for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Dr. Meghann Lloyd, Lead Author and Researcher with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ontario Tech University. “This ground-breaking study strongly demonstrates that engagement in Special Olympics goes beyond mere recreation. It provides compelling evidence that participation fosters considerable health improvements, reinforcing the notion that such inclusive sports programs are vital for the holistic well-being of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The health advantages observed underscore the importance of supporting and expanding access to these programs. Our findings advocate for the broader adoption of Special Olympics as a critical component of public health strategies aimed at improving the quality of life for this population.”

Research shows lower levels of physical activity as a primary reason why adults with IDD are at a higher risk of developing diabetes compared to their peers without IDD. Special Olympics offers a unique opportunity for young adults with IDD to enhance their physical activity levels while also gaining access to Special Olympics Canada’s various health screenings and educational resources, while fostering social connections in an inclusive community. By comparing the diabetes rates among Special Olympics participants with those who did not participate, the research finds that the risk of diabetes was significantly lower among participants.

“While we have long observed these positive outcomes for Special Olympics athletes firsthand, it’s gratifying to have research that supports what we’ve always believed,” says Gail Hamamoto, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics Canada. “Given that diabetes is one of the most prevalent, debilitating and costly diseases to the Canadian healthcare system, it’s remarkable to witness the impact of Special Olympics. This new study reveals that Special Olympics athletes have a 15% reduced risk of diabetes compared to non-participants. We now know that participation in our programs not only enhances the overall well-being of each Special Olympics athlete by promoting physical, mental and emotional wellness through activity and social inclusion – but could also bring significant socio-economic benefits for all Canadians.”

The compelling findings underscore the critical role of inclusive community-based physical activity programs in improving the lives of individuals with IDD. Special Olympics Canada remain committed to expanding access to these transformative programs, fostering a healthier and more inclusive society for everyone.

The research article was published online on June 25th, 2024, in Diabetic Medicine.  http://doi.org/10.1111/dme.15393

Media interview opportunities include:

  • Special Olympics athletes with lived experience and their families
  • Meghann Lloyd, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ontario Tech University
  • Gail Hamamoto, Chief Executive Officer, Special Olympics Canada


Established in 1974, the Canadian chapter of this global movement is dedicated to enriching the lives of Canadians with an intellectual disability through the transformative power and joy of sport. Operating out of sport clubs in 12 Provincial and Territorial Chapters, this grassroots movement reaches beyond the sphere of sport to empower individuals, change attitudes and build communities. From two-year-olds to mature adults, thousands of athletes with an intellectual disability are registered in Special Olympics year-round programs across Canada. For more information, visit specialolympics.ca or follow @specialocanada on social media.

About Ontario Tech University: Celebrating 20 years

A modern, forward-thinking university, Ontario Tech advances the discovery and application of knowledge to accelerate economic growth, regional development and social innovation. We inspire and equip our students and our graduates to make a positive impact in a tech-focused world. For us, it’s not only about developing the next tech breakthrough. Understanding and integrating the social and ethical implications of technology differentiates us as a university. Learn more at ontariotechu.ca.

For more information and interview opportunities, please contact:

Brigitte Kenny
Hype PR
[email protected]

Allie Wiebe
Special Olympics Canada
[email protected]

Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
Ontario Tech University
[email protected]
289.928.3563 (mobile)

Read the Journal Article