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March 2018

Kids with heart disease hit the court

At a glance
The team

UOttawa-CHEO researcher Angelica Blais, in partnership with SportBall

The challenge

Children with congenital heart defects fear aggravating their symptoms and may restrict themselves from physical play

The solution

Research how to modify physical activity programs to be more inclusive to children with CHD

The outcome

Changes to Sportball’s existing programming as well as training for coaches on how to accommodate children with CHD and other developmental limitations

What's next

Sportball plans to deploy training materials for their coaches across Canada

Diagnosed with a congenital heart defect (CHD) at age nine, Mitacs researcher Angelica Blais knows what it’s like to feel like you have to sit on the sidelines. “When you’re a kid with heart disease, there are real physical and psychological limitations to being active,” she says.

That’s why Angelica jumped at the opportunity to research physical literacy programs for kids with CHD through a Mitacs internship.  She partnered with Sportball, a non-competitive sports education organization that offers methodology-based instruction for kids aged 16 months to 12 years old. Sportball programs across Canada work on developing children’s physical literacy while focusing on important sport, social, and motor skills.

“Historically, doctors were more likely to restrict kids with heart disease from playing sports. But with changes to recent guidelines, they’re now focusing on encouraging them to be active,” says Angelica, who worked with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research team at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Despite new research and updated guidelines, many children and their families are still unsure about which sports are safe for them to participate in, with the fear that vigorous physical activity could aggravate potentially life-threatening symptoms.

To address this gap, Angelica engaged with kids and coaches at Sportball to better understand how their programs could work with the unique concerns of kids with CHD. She then made a series of recommendations to Sportball on how their existing programs can be even more inclusive for kids with heart disease. 

“Sportball is for everyone,” says Jason D’Rocha, Director of Training and Development at Sportball. “However, most of our participants present with normal physical development. Angelica’s research will allow us to provide our coaches with more comprehensive training to work with children with additional needs and to deliver programs that take into consideration participants’ strengths, limitations and cardiovascular health.”

Working with Angelica was an opportunity for us to evaluate and improve all of our services and to make sure that they can be more inclusive for everyone,” concludes Jason.

For Angelica, this project was just the beginning. She’s now started a PhD and will expand her research into clinical settings with other community partners. “It’s so important to provide opportunities for kids with CHD and other limitations to be included in sports so that they, too, can have the many health benefits of an active lifestyle.“

“After this project, I’m excited to take my research to the next level.”


Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story.

Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.