Why Physical Activity is Important to People with Epilepsy

Those with epilepsy can achieve the same benefits from regular physical activity as people without epilepsy. Beyond these common benefits being active also has benefits that are specific to people with epilepsy. For these individuals, physical activity can decrease seizure frequency by reducing stress which is a common trigger for epilepsy. Seizures can also be decreased through improved overall health which is a result of physical activity. Studies show that active people living with epilepsy have significantly lower levels of depression than those who are inactive. Walking and other weight bearing activities can improve bone density, which is important for people with epilepsy who may be at a greater risk of osteoporosis.

Physical Activity Tips and Modifications for People with Epilepsy

People with epilepsy can safely participate in most sports and physical activities, but there are some that are riskier for these individuals.  Below are some tips to consider when a person who has epilepsy is being physically active:

  • Ensure that the person has taken their medications prior to activity;
  • Make sure you know the typical triggers which may cause the individual to have a seizure, in order to avoid these situations during activity;
  • Try to avoid activities that may result in a blow to the head (i.e. contact sports or activities that risk falling) - as trauma to the head can likely trigger a seizure;
  • Avoid aquatic activities in places where the sun or light reflects off of the water – this can also trigger a seizure.

Teaching Techniques for Physical Activity Leaders

As a physical activity leader, what should you do if a person has a seizure?

  • Remain calm. Most often, a seizure will run its course and end naturally within a few minutes;
  • Minimize the crowd to the best of your ability. This is likely an embarrassing situation for the person and there is no reason that others need to be watching;
  • Make sure the person is in a safe position by assisting them to the floor and removing all clutter and objects that might injure the person;
  • Protect the person's head and body;
  • Loosen clothing that might be restricting;
  • Do not restrain the person during a seizure;
  • Remember that while a person is having a seizure they may or may not hear you;
  • DO NOT put anything in the person's mouth. It is a common misconception that people may swallow their tongue during a seizure. This is false, as it is impossible to swallow your tongue;
  • After the person has finished a seizure, roll them onto their side to allow any excess saliva to fall out and to ensure that the airway is open;
  • After a seizure, it is important to comfort and reassure the person. Help them to relax and make them feel at ease. Allow them to rest or sleep if necessary;
  • If a seizure lasts for longer than 5 minutes or becomes continuous without full recovery in between, seek medical attention immediately.

More About Epilepsy

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic brain condition that causes repetitive seizures. It can affect people of all ages. The cause is not well understood.

Some people may acquire epilepsy as a result of stroke, brain injury, viral infections of the brain (i.e. meningitis, viral encephalitis), or alcohol poisoning from substance abuse.  Injury, infection, or systemic illness of the mother during pregnancy, as well as brain injury to the infant during delivery may lead to epilepsy.

What is a Seizure?

A seizure typically presents as abnormal movement of the body or convulsions. It can last for seconds or for a few minutes.

Seizures do not necessarily indicate epilepsy. People can experience seizures as a result of head trauma, high fever, or lack of oxygen to the brain. Some people will undergo brain surgery to eliminate seizures.

There are many different types of seizures. The most common are:

Tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures): These usually last for several minutes, and present as repetitive muscle contractions throughout the entire body. The person may lose consciousness, lose control of his/her bowel and bladder, and may experience temporary cessation of breathing.

Absence seizures (petit mal seizures): These usually last no longer than 30 seconds and are characterized by minimal body movement, but the person usually loses consciousness very briefly. This type is most common in children only.

Partial seizures: These include short term symptoms of atypical behaviour and the experience of unusual sensations. Typically, the person does not lose consciousness.

Impact and Triggers of Epilepsy

There is no cure for epilepsy. Most people are treated with long-term medication plans. These medications can have profound side-effects that can significantly affect daily living for some people. Most often however, the effects are mild and short term in duration, and are treatable by adjusting dosage.

Common side effects of medications may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness

Common Seizure Triggers for People with Epilepsy can include:

  • Stress
  • Poor nutrition
  • Missed medication
  • Flickering lights
  • Skipping meals
  • Illness
  • Fever
  • Allergies
  • Lack of sleep
  • Emotions (i.e. anger, worry, fear, etc.)
  • Heat and/or humidity

Warning Signs of a Seizure

Many people experience a sensation before the onset of a seizure. This is called an "aura". Often times an "aura" can provide the person with enough warning time to get to a safe place in a lying position.

The experience of an "aura" is different for everyone. It can range from a change in body temperature, to feeling anxiety, to experiencing strange tastes or smells.

Useful Information About Epilepsy

  • It is estimated that about 260,000 Canadians have epilepsy;
  • One in 10 people will have a seizure at some point in their life.  A single seizure is not necessarily epilepsy;
  • Each day in Canada, an average of 42 people learn that they have epilepsy. 
  • Epilepsy can occur at any point in a person's life.  According to data collected from the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2010/2011 about 14.6% of Canadians with epilepsy are 0-17 years old, 72.8% are 18-64 years old, and 12.6% are 65-year-old and over. 
  • Due to the negative stigma attached to the disorder, many people with epilepsy are often afraid to admit that they have this condition and seek help.  Consequently, there likely exist more cases of epilepsy than are reported;


Epilepsy Canada - www.epilepsy.ca
Physical Activity and Epilepsy - www.epilepsytoronto.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/PhysicalActivityandEpilepsy.pdf
Living with Epilepsy: Playing Sports and Other Activities - www.epilepsy.com/living-epilepsy/parents-and-caregivers/about-kids/playing-sports-and-other-activities
Side Effects (seizure medications) - www.epilepsy.com/epilepsy/medicine_sideeffects
National Consortium for Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities (1995). Adapted Physical Education National Standards. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Steadward, R.D., Wheeler, G.D., and Watkinson, E.J. (2003). Adapted Physical Activity. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press

Helping Canadians with Disability/Chronic Disease Get Physically Active

For Canadians with a disability, regular physical activity may be even more important than it is for the rest of the population. For a person with a disability, an active lifestyle can open doors to increased health, social inclusion and self-empowerment - doors which might otherwise remain closed. Access to physical activity can eliminate the likelihood of acquiring secondary health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Being active builds resiliency and can provide an all-important outlet for a person with a disability.


This project would not have been possible without the expertise of our partners. ALACD would like to sincerely thank these organizations for working with us to develop this resource: the Ontario Blind Sports Association, Variety Village, the National Network for Mental Health, and the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.