Paving the Way: Occupational Therapist Chesney Walker Prioritizes CrossFit for those with Intellectual and Physical Disabilities

October 22, 2023 by
Courtesy of Chesney Walker
Enjoying Morning Chalk Up? Access additional exclusive interviews, analyses, and stories with an Rx membership.

As Chesney Walker was going through her occupational therapy education, she noticed something was lacking in most people’s therapy plans: CrossFit.

Traditionally, occupational therapists take a client-centered, often holistic approach that focuses on removing barriers that affect a person’s emotional, social and physical ability to perform their daily activities, the ultimate goal being to help them get through life more independently. 

In many cases, the profession is largely about helping people rehabilitate injuries so they can get back to work, and in other cases it involves working with people with permanent intellectual or physical disabilities. 

  • “Occupational therapists’ goals focus on increasing an individual’s overall level of independence and satisfaction with engagement in their daily occupations. These are anything that takes up time during your day, from getting out of bed to playing with grandkids to walking your dog,” Walker said. 

How they get there is largely up to the occupational therapist and the client. Sometimes the plan involves fitness, and other times not, explained Walker, who just graduated from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. 

As a long-time CrossFit athlete at CrossFit Billings, though, Walker was convinced that incorporating a CrossFit program into her approach with her clients would be the best way to help achieve the ultimate goal of becoming more functional in life.

  • “A lot of the things we do in CrossFit transfer over to our daily routines, so I want to teach people about CrossFit and how it relates to things we do everyday,” said the 25-year-old Walker.

With this in mind, she launched her final occupational therapy school project: A seven-week CrossFit program for those with intellectual or physical disabilities.

Why this demographic? Though occupational therapists work with all kinds of clients, Walker specifically wanted to work with those with intellectual and physical disabilities, she explained, as they’re at an increased risk both of being less physically active and of developing chronic diseases than the general population.

  • “They’re a population who struggles to meet the physical activity standards for Americans. There are statistics that show that 91 percent of them don’t meet the exercise requirements, and I know how important exercise is, how it benefits overall health and well-being and longevity,” Walker said.
  • “So the overall goal of the project was to develop a program that was more inclusive for those with intellectual and physical disabilities, and to educate them about the importance of exercise to our lives and occupations….I wanted to see what the impact of CrossFit was on individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities and their overall engagement in their daily occupations.”

The details: Walker, a CrossFit Level 1 coach who volunteers with a local Special Olympics program, recruited nine athletes, all of whom have some sort of intellectual or physical disability, ranging from Downs Syndrome to a traumatic brain injury, and convinced them to participate in CrossFit for seven weeks.

The program’s focus was to use traditional CrossFit movements to build strength, endurance, range of motion and balance in a way that it transfers into their daily lives.

  • “Fall prevention is a big thing for this population, so I used things like burpees and box step-ups to improve balance and strength,” she said. “Honestly, it was a bit of trial and error, but sometimes you just gotta try things.”

The trial and error approach worked, as at the end of the program every single athlete improved on the workout Walker put them through at the beginning of the program: three rounds for time of 15 air squats, 10 sit-ups, a 5 calorie row and a 50-foot farmer’s carry.

  • “They all improved their time and hit the intended stimulus (eight to 10 minutes), and they were able to lift more weight on the farmer’s carry. One person improved her time by three minutes,” Walker said.

More importantly, the participants in her project said CrossFit not only helped them feel stronger lifting boxes and bags at work or playing basketball or dancing, and it also led to higher energy levels throughout the day.

  • “They saw the value of movements we do in CrossFit and recognized how stronger and energetic they feel outside the gym. That was the whole purpose of my project: to take that occupational lens and apply it to CrossFit.”

The big picture: Long-term, Walker’s goal is to open a gym that caters specifically to adaptive athletes, “but that’s a few years down the road,” she said.

For now, she’s focused on making the move to Helena, MN to begin a career she couldn’t be more excited about, and she is especially excited about continuing to work with those with intellectual or physical disabilities.

  • “I love seeing the athletes make the choice to show up to the gym and put in work that will enhance their overall quality of life and have fun while doing it…They bring so much joy into my life,” she said.

Get the Newsletter

For a daily digest of all things CrossFit. Community, Competitions, Athletes, Tips, Recipes, Deals and more.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.