Former Olympian Is Helping People With Intellectual And Physical Limitations Fight Obesity

Frank Mensah is a first-generation Ghanaian-American who represented Ghana in the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, Ga. After retiring from the track, the Olympian and four-time All-American decided to use his thirty plus years of fitness and nutrition experience to improve the mental and physical lives of people with disabilities.

Mr. Mensah sat for an interview to discuss how he is doing his part to improve the health and lives of disabled communities. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Facts

Over one-third of adults, or 72 million people in the United States, are considered obese per the CDC and National Center for Health Statistics. Those numbers among adults and children with intellectual or physical limitations are significantly higher compared to able bodied persons of the same age. 20% of children aged 10–17 with a mental or physical impairment are considered “obese,” compared to 15% of able bodied children of the same age range. A CDC report points out that not only does obesity affect one’s health, but it leads to additional medical costs of about $1,429 per person annually. Those costs are substantially higher for people with intellectual and physical limitations.

For(bes) The Culture: What sparked your desire to take on this work?

Frank Mensah: I’ve been a personal trainer for over twenty years with my company ‘Olympic Fit’ and after meeting my now friend Diane Campione, she encouraged me to use my talents to help adults, teens, and kids with disabilities. I immediately started researching and ultimately created the ‘Triumph Program’ for all ranges of mental and physical abilities to help improve the quality of their overall health and life. The program is community based and open to the public which services typical, ambulatory, and non-ambulatory individuals.

Getting To The Root

The research linking the root causes of obesity and varying disabilities is limited. Scientific investigation into this complex relationship should be further explored and supported. Most scientific inquiry in this area explores the correlation between obesity and disability, not the other way around. The CDC and AAHD both identified similar causes of obesity among neurodivergent and nonambulatory people, including the following:

  • Lack of access to healthy food
  • Medications that contribute to appetite changes, weight loss, or weight gain
  • a lack of accessible environments (for example, sidewalks, parks, and exercise equipment) that can enable exercise.
  • Difficulty with chewing or swallowing food, or its taste or texture
  • a lack of resources (for example, money, transportation, and social support from family, friends, neighbors, and community members).
  • a lack of accessible environments (for example, sidewalks, parks, and exercise equipment) that can enable exercise.

Frank is using his knowledge and connections to remedy some of the aforementioned causes:

For(bes) The Culture: What is the root cause for high obesity rates within the neurodivergent, ambulatory, and non-ambulatory communities?

Frank Mensah: It comes down to medication, metabolism, and whether or not the person is ambulatory or non-ambulatory. Movement is key to health no matter how you do it, and it’s something many of us take for granted.

For(bes) The Culture: In what other ways are you making an impact in the neurodiversity sector?

Frank Mensah: Recently I have partnered with three other entrepreneurs (Maria and George Casale, and Diane Campione) in Staten Island to create ‘The Fusion Programs’, a 4,800-square-foot center in Dongan Hills. We are offering classes in technology, coding, fitness, culinary arts, gaming, socialization, and other stem and non-stem related subjects.

Although there is room for more research on this subject matter some people are leading the effort. An academic paper by the University of Hertfordshire suggests four key interventional approaches for obese people with intellectual and physical limitations. A focus on dietary intake, increasing energy expenditure, health promotion and education, along with a multidisciplinary team working with the individual.

Addressing and Respecting Diversity

When addressing the ways to improve the health and wellness of people with disabilities, we cannot ignore the vast diversity within the disability community itself. Forbes contributor Andrew Pulrang lays out four ways to diversify the disability community including:

  1. The type of disability
  2. The personal history of the person with the disability
  3. Overlapping identities and experiences
  4. Paradigms and disciplines

For a deeper understanding of this topic read his in-depth article on the subject matter here.

Forbes The Culture: How do you go about making sure that every person’s experience and disability is recognized and catered to? Do you group everyone in a general way?

Frank Mensah: No, not at all! I fully understand that everyone is not a monolith nor do they share the same experience with their conditions. When my team and I interact with our clients we tailor our whole interaction and experience to that person. Most of the time our client’s guardian, parent, or caretaker informs us on how to address them and their conditions. We respect everyone as a unique individual trying to improve their life in some way and help them to become productive members of society.

If you would like to help a family or community member with an intellectual or physical limitation there are ways you can assist and some things to consider. The health of your loved one is a multidisciplinary effort that involves the cooperation of the patient, their primary caregiver, general practitioner, practice nurse, dietician, speech and language therapist, and necessary psychology and psychiatry input from local learning disability services. This approach allows for a well organized program. The mental and physical capacity of the person should also be taken into consideration along with their consent to get help. There are laws and procedures in place ensure the well being and protect the rights of people with disabilities. You may contact a community disability Nurse who has received appropriate training or local and government disability services for additional guidance.

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