Andy Pitchford uses a DXA scanner to record comprehensive bone, muscle, and fat mass images. The data help improve body composition measurement practices that lead to better research studies of developmental disabilities like Down syndrome. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Pitchford breaks barriers to exercise for youth with developmental disabilities

Andy Pitchford is improving the lives of youth with developmental disabilities by enhancing their physical activity inside and outside the classroom.

“I’ve always wanted to provide a public good for the people participating in my research,” said Pitchford, a new assistant professor in kinesiology at Iowa State University. “Whether it’s learning about their body composition and health through DXA scan results, or riding a bicycle for the first time, it’s about picking up something they didn’t have before they participated in an intervention.”

Pitchford studies levels of physical activity, motor skills, and obesity in people with Down syndrome. Aided by the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition and Wellness Research Center’s dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scanners, he can record comprehensive images of bone, muscle, and fat mass. By studying the various parts of the body, Pitchford is able to break body composition down with greater detail. Looking closely at these areas, he said, improves measurement practices.

“There’s something about Down syndrome that is leading to excess fat mass among those with the disability — twice the national average,” Pitchford said. “Even when we compare those with Down syndrome to individuals with intellectual disabilities without a genetic origin, they’re substantially more overweight and obese. They tend to store more of their fat mass in their abdomen compared to other areas, so our clinical tools, like DXA, are particularly useful because you don’t get regional body composition information from body mass index.”

Curiosity that connects to the community

Pitchford’s drive to make exercise more accessible for those with developmental disabilities was sparked during his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As part of his introductory coursework, he observed physical education classes in area schools.

“I saw instruction that was basic; it wasn’t individualized,” Pitchford said. “The resources that the adapted physical education teacher had were minimal, even though the students in the class had the potential to benefit the most from physical education.”

Pitchford’s curiosity continued while pursuing a master’s degree at Oregon State University. There, he studied to become licensed as a Certified Adapted Physical Educator, but also found he enjoyed the process of conducting research and addressing real-world issues. He volunteered with Special Olympics, which connected him to young athletes with Down syndrome.

“People with Down syndrome have unique health care needs,” Pitchford said. “I enjoy working and interacting with them. Any time you specialize in a population, there has to be a connection to it.”

Creative approaches to intervention

Because Pitchford recruits from a unique population to complete his research, he said it can be difficult to access potential participants. However, he’s found success by connecting with parent support groups.

“My work focuses on questions that are of interest to parents,” Pitchford said. “I’m a resource they’re looking for. It’s a two-way street — there’s reciprocity as I try to answer my research questions while providing them a service.”

Given the challenge of finding enough participants to run successful research studies and large-scale interventions, Pitchford is leveraging modern technology to lead mobile interventions.

“Tablets and motion sensors on activity trackers allow us to conduct individualized interventions for people with disabilities by removing the need to come to the exercise clinic here on campus,” he said. “Web conferencing technologies can also be used to provide mobile physical fitness interventions for individuals with disabilities that still address their unique needs, but remove some of the burdens of traditional exercise intervention approaches.”

Involving students in interventions

As Pitchford carries out his research and outreach, he incorporates the principles of theoretical models — understanding the “why” behind teaching methods and community interventions.

“It’s having that theoretical basis to understand why programs work or don’t work, so that you can be a thoughtful practitioner,” he said.

Philip Martin, professor and chair of kinesiology, said Pitchford’s blending of research and outreach ties directly to the aims of the kinesiology department.

“One of Andy’s many strengths and a characteristic that caught our attention during the recruiting process is the way he integrates his research and outreach activities,” Martin said. “He fits our teaching, research, and outreach missions very well. With his focus on adapted physical activity, Andy also further diversifies research expertise in the department.”

Pitchford brings his students into his work. An advocate for applied experiential learning, he strives to connect real-life experiences to his course content through hands-on practice.

This fall, students in his adapted physical education class volunteered with Special Olympics Iowa for a volleyball tournament hosted in the Forker Building.

“In KIN 395, we have learned about a variety of disabilities that can occur in the human body. However, we also make sure to focus on a person's ability, not their disability,” said Kacie Schumann, a senior in physical education teacher education who serves as president of the College of Human Sciences’ Physical Education Club. “Special Olympics is exactly that — focusing on what an individual can do and allowing them to use those skills in an athletically competitive setting.”

Pitchford is currently working to expand the long-standing partnership between Special Olympics and the Department of Kinesiology through the Special Olympics summer games held on the Iowa State campus each May.

“The land-grant institution ideals of providing a service back to the community are very much ingrained in my philosophy for conducting studies and examining research questions that are important to families who have children with disabilities,” Pitchford said.