PRELIMINARY RESULTS of an ongoing study of mentally disabled (MD) children confirm that they are less fit than others. But with proper training, many MD children can become shining sports stars. In 2001, a team of researchers from the department of physical education at Hong Kong Baptist University (BU) visited eight special schools and tested the fitness levels of 736 MD children from Primary One to Secondary Three. The findings were not surprising. Compared with other children, MD children were fatter, weaker at running, push-ups and sit-ups. Their bodies were also less flexible. But that does not mean MD children are mostly couch potatoes. Presenting the findings at a gathering of the BU's Faculty of Social Science recently, Dr Chow Bik-chu, one of the researchers, said: 'They do enjoy games with more rigorous physical movement. 'They particularly like moving to music with strong beats and rhythms.' There are other examples. At the 2000 Paralympics, Lai Wai-ling, a student at Choi Jun School, snapped up a gold medal in table tennis. 'It really is a matter of ratio,' says the school's PE teacher Lai Yan-ki. 'A lower ratio of MD children enjoy sports compared to typical children.' Some in-born physical problems associated with MD also hinder their sports activities. One example is Down's Syndrome. With the third and fourth section of their spines fused together, children with Down's Syndrome cannot perform somersaults. Mr Lai believes that instead of forcing uninterested MD children to take part in sports, it would do more good to allow them develop their interests. That is why the school offers a rich variety of sports activities, such as dancing, music, soccer, and more. 'Some parents even worry that there are too many activities to distract their children from studies,' Mr Lai says. However, according to the BU study, MD children were less active. Dr Chow listed a number of factors that gave rise to their unhealthy lifestyle. On the family front, a crowded living environment does not encourage physical activity. A society uncomfortable with MD children and the fear that they may run away makes parents reluctant to take them out. That leaves most MD children with few choices for leisure activities other than watching television and eating. Over-protective schools often discourage physical activities, such as running, during recess. Special schools also suffer from setbacks such as limited open space, lack of a guided physical education (PE) curriculum for MD children, and lack of training for their PE teachers. 'From what we observed, MD children's most frequent activities during recess time was watching television,' Dr Chow said. The BU team is currently developing ready-made lesson plans and teaching materials and adapting the PE curriculum for these schools. They also called for parents and schools to team up in promoting sports activities among MD children. Seminars for parents , highlighting the need for physical activities, were organised last year. During the final phase of this Quality Education Fund supported project, schools are provided with equipment and assistance in designing suitable activities for MD children. The result has yet to be assessed. Mr Lai believes the project will help MD children. But he calls for more emphasis on their potential. 'Some of them are beyond our imagination.'