Fitness can improve mental health by decreasing stress levels, improving focus, and increasing self-esteem. Additionally, fitness provides an avenue for social engagement.
As parents, we all want our children to grow up healthy and experience all life has to offer. Play and sport offer early opportunities for our kids to be active, healthy, socialize, and learn skills that will last a lifetime. Whether running around the backyard or playing with an organized team, children enjoy the fun of being active. Their laughs and smiles remind us adults of fun memories from our own childhoods.
However, many children with a disability are not offered opportunities to be active and miss out on the chance to make memories with friends. Special Olympics is changing that. Here at Special Olympics, we use the term "unified," which means people with and without intellectual disabilities are competing, playing, interacting, learning, and working together, side by side. By playing unified, we show are all capable and everyone is accepted. Special Olympics is known for its inclusive sports for people with intellectual disabilities. Since an athlete performs best when he or she is fit and healthy, Special Olympics is opening the world of fitness to people with intellectual disabilities. In order to truly achieve sport excellence, personal best and opti mal health, Special Olympics athletes need to be physically active, eat healthy foods, and drink water every day, year-round. The reality is that some athletes only practice their sport once a week, and competition seasons are only about three months long. This leaves a large gap throughout the year where athletes live sedentary lifestyles, putting them at risk for obesity, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Special Olympics is filling that gap with programs designed for everyone, regardless of affiliation with a Special Olympics Program: Fit Families, SOfit, Unified Fitness Clubs, Fit 5, and UFit.
"Recent health outcomes data from Special Olympics fitness programming include decreases in weight and blood pressure; for instance, a full 44 percent of athletes who were hypertensive at the beginning of programming had normal blood pressure within 10 weeks. The positive results we've seen in such a short time span are incredible," said Darcie Mersereau, Vice President of Health Programs, Special Olympics International.
Olympics International. The benefits of fitness extend beyond physical health, too. Fitness can improve mental health by decreasing stress levels, improving focus, and increasing selfesteem. Additionally, fitness provides an avenue for social engagement. So staying in shape can improve sports performance and improve quality of life.
Starting a journey to physical fitness begins with a single step. Here are three steps to consider.
ENGAGE WITH A SPECIAL OLYMPICS PROGRAMSpecial Olympics Programs around the world are using three unified models for fitness: Fit Families, SOfit, and Unified Fitness Clubs. Since these are all unified models, your child can participate whether or not he or she has an intellectual disability. You can even participate as a family. Check your local Special Olympics Program website to see if one of these fitness programs is available in your area or start one of the programs using the resources on the Special Olympics fitness resource page, noted at the end of the article.
Fit Families, designed by Special Olympics Arkansas, is a six-week fitness challenge designed to encourage people with intellectual disabilities and their supporters to focus on a healthier lifestyle.
Families track physical activity minutes and progress towards a nutrition goal. Families are then rewarded with incentives for completing healthy levels of physical activity and achieving their nutrition goal. "Fit Families is a kick start to living healthfully. We have seen a family with young children adapt a fitness program so their therapy sessions go smoother while also getting creative for how to keep a three year old and a one year old interested in fitness" explained Camie Powell, Special Olympics Arkansas Director of Marketing and Corporate Relations. While the challenge was originally designed for families, Special Olympics Programs have seen success with this model on athletic teams, in group homes, and even in schools. Around the world, 15 Special Olympics Programs have replicated this challenge. "We've been so excited with the positive results we've seen from Fit Families. Just recently, a team of four athletes gave up unhealthy snacks like honey buns and soda because they learned about snacks that give you more energy. A group of athletes lost 85 pounds collectively because they all worked together to support each other through this challenge," added Powell.
Designed by Special Olympics Minnesota and currently implemented in 21 Special Olympics Programs, SOfit is an eight-week wellness class in which unified pairs (one person with and one person without intellectual disability) learn to live a healthy lifestyle. Teams meet once a week and complete an educational topic and a fitness activity. "SOfit is a holistic approach to wellness, with educational topics that are based around four pillars of wellness: Social, Emotional, Physical and Nutritional," explained Hillary Tyler, Health Programs Manger and SOfit Co-Creator. "We also encourage teams to have some fun with their fitness activities and try new things. Zumba, yoga, dance lessons, and a park clean-up are some of the things teams have done."
Teams learn about all aspects of wellness, including topics like healthy cooking and grocery shopping, the importance of varying workouts, how to make healthy beverage choices, meditation for stress relief and even how to cope with bullying. "Wellness doesn't look the same for everyone; so teams are encouraged to select educational topics that are of interest to their groups," said Ben Swarts, Manager of Wellness Initiatives and SOfit Co-Creator. SOfit has shown success in a number of settings and has even been taught in several schools, providing a framework for inclusive physical education. "One of the key aspects of SOfit is its flexibility. It was designed so that with some basic guidelines and instruction, it can be run by anyone, anytime, anywhere," added Tyler.
Unified Fitness Clubs, created by Special Olympics Connecticut, has gained traction in 22 Special Olympics Programs worldwide. Unified Fitness Clubs primarily use unified walking for year-round fitness and to inspire friendships among participants. Each participant receives a fitness tracking device to count steps and miles. Participants and teams are rewarded for achieving milestones. The Club meets at least once per week for their activity, and participants can go at their own pace. Some participants have even worked their way up to running. Additionally, participants are encouraged to stay active outside of weekly meetings to further enhance their health and fitness, which can also result in earning incentives faster. Although The Club isn't competitive, Special Olympics Connecticut has found that just the fact that athletes have their fitness tracking devices on incentivizes them to get out and exercise. "Kylie Wrinn, one of our athletes, gets very excited when her older brothers come home from college because she gets to show them the device and makes them walk up and down the stairs in their house until she reaches her goal on the tracker," explains Don Conklin, Coordinator of United Fitness Clubs. The real reward Conklin has seen is in the overall improved fitness of the participants. "I've seen it in all the clubs and the individual participants. It's remarkable."
USING RESOURCES ON YOUR OWNStaying fit requires building healthy habits at home. Special Olympics has created resources to help athletes and families stay fit. The resources can be used as part of a larger program or can be used at home with the family on a daily basis. All Special Olympics fitness resources are filled with pictures and written at a level that makes it easier for athletes to understand. The resources also include tips from which everyone can benefit. Fit 5 is a guide to achieving fitness and personal best by following the easy-toremember goals of exercising five days per week, eating five total fruits and vegetables per day, and drinking the equivalent of five bottles of water per day. The guide provides tips and recommendations for achieving these goals and includes a fitness tracker to record progress. Families and friends can work on their goals together. In fact, 11 Special Olympics Programs have even started using the Fit 5 guide at practice or as a fitness program. Fit 5 fitness cards demonstrate how to do exercises for endurance, strength and flexibility. They can be incorporated into practice or given to athletes to complete at home. Special Olympics athletes are featured on the cards completing the exercises along with written instructions for proper form. The cards are leveled 1 through 5 with 5 being the most challenging, making these cards great for groups with varying degrees of ability. A complementary video series is available on the Special Olympics website to make it even easier for you and your family to follow along and stay active at home.
PARTNERING WITH THE LARGER COMMUNITYIn order to be in optimal shape, athletes must have equal opportunities to participate in fitness activities. In addition to Special Olympics programming, fitness opportunities in the community must be inclusive as well. That's why Special Olympics has recently partnered with UFit (Universal Fitness Innovation and Transformation), an organization that equips fitness professionals with sufficient knowledge, competence, and skill to work with people with disabilities. This partnership aims to train fitness centers to be more inclusive for all people with disabilities. Although still in the pilot phase, this promising training program will open the doors of gyms and fitness centers around the world, not only for Special Olympics athletes and others with intellectual disabilities, but all people with disabilities, making fitness a possibility for everyone. Incorporating a lifestyle of fitness into your family's life can be easy, and can improve how you interact with each other, help form stronger family bonds, make new friends, and become healthier and fitter. •
To learn more about Special Olympics fitness resources, visit resources.specialolympics.org and search for Fitness.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:Kyle Washburn, MBA, MEd, BS, is Special Olympics International Director, Fitness. Monica Forquer, MS, BS, is Special Olympics International Manager, Fitness. Stephanie Corkett is Special Olympics International Manager, External Health Communications.
The Ongoing Debate of Inclusionary Educational Settings vs. Specialized Educational Settings for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Continues
Note from the Rick Rader, MD, EP Magazine Editor-in-chief:Members of the EP Editorial Advisory Board often serve as mentors, faculty and proctors for promising high school students interested in the field of disability studies. They pride themselves in encouraging, guiding and inspiring their pursuit of careers in the fields of education, healthcare, ethics, research, therapy and counseling.From time to time EP publishes the reports authored by these young students. This article by Baker Garrison of Chattanooga, TN addresses the ongoing controversy of the pros and cons of inclusionary educational settings versus. separate specialized program. Despite the belief that this argument has been concluded (in favor of the inclusionary setting), there is still passionate feelings that support the specialized setting.Note: Mr. Garrison will be entering the Engineering Program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga next year with an interest in studying engineering solutions for obstacles encountered by people with disabilities.
Conventional thought, theory, and policy is that education of individuals with disabilities in an inclusive setting is preferred over all learning environments. However, there are other options chosen by some families and individuals. This paper attempts to determine the reasons for exclusionary education while not dismissing the importance of an inclusionary setting. I was drawn to this topic for my senior project at my high school, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, because I feel that only one perspective of this policy was prevalent in my research, that being the near universal support for inclusion. On a personal note, I have been around a special placement for all of my life. My grandfather was the deputy director of the Orange Grove Center, a school for individuals with disabilities located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. From as early as I can remember my grandfather and mother would take me to the school quite frequently. This gave me experiences that few others got to have and led to me developing familiarity towards this population at an early age. Eventually I had the opportunity to work as a counselor at a summer camp hosted by Orange Grove that many of my family members had participated at in years past. My brother will be following in our footsteps and is working there this summer. At this summer camp I was able to meet some truly amazing and capable individuals that had come through the Orange Grove program. It was a life changing experience as my relationship transitioned from familiarity to friendship. When it came time to decide the subject of my senior project I knew immediately that I wanted to include these experiences in some way. To give some context, my school has a vigorous senior project that everyone must complete to graduate. There are four compo nents to said project: a research paper, community service, a product, and a presentation. For my research paper I set about answering the question, "What are the potential benefits of special placements for a student with an intellectual and developmental disability?" It was a difficult question to answer that took hours of research. For the community service portion of my project I was able to volunteer two times a week at Orange Grove. The main focus of my volunteering was aiding in the training of Orange Groves Special Olympics athletes. For the presentation aspect I will present everything I have done for my senior project, the paper, product, and community service, to a panel of teachers and experts in the field of special education. This brings me to my product. The product portion is the tangible or intangible outcome of our projects. It must connect directly to our topic and should provide an opportunity to apply our knowledge to more deeply explore the subject. My product consisted of personal interviews with parents of students in a special placement. I first typed up 13 questions regarding education settings and the Orange Grove School. I then drafted a letter asking permission for me to contact and interview the parents. I gave that letter to the principal of Orange Grove who reviewed it and then sent it home to all the parents of the 40 school-age children. Of those, nine were returned giving permission and one not giving me permission. I was able to contact and interview seven parents. The most notable and revealing responses I received from the interviews are listed here.
One of the questions I asked was, "How do you feel the general community sees Orange Grove?" Most of the responses stressed that Orange Grove was well regarded and had a very good reputation, however one response resonated with me. I asked the question and the interviewee responded with a simple and concise: "They don't." She went on to explain how she felt that many people were unaware of the good work Orange Grove is doing and the benefits of a learning environment like theirs. I knew exactly what she meant, through my research I had found it was difficult to find support for secluded settings. Some of the other notable responses I received were in response to the question, "What other options would you have considered if Orange Grove had not been available to you?" A little over half of the parents simply did not know what they would have done since Orange Grove is the only school of its type in the area that could accommodate their child. The other few parents would have had to go to drastic measures such as quitting their jobs or moving had Orange Grove not been an option.
Overall the responses were overwhelmingly positive. The parents were particularly fond of how experienced and caring the staff are, along with the offered therapy sessions. Every single interviewee said they would highly recommend Orange Grove. Out of all the interviews I conducted, the only negative thing said was that some of the school's facilities could use updating. These results were not unexpected as this was the choice these parents made for their children's educational placements but I do believe the project shows the attractiveness of a separate learning opportunity.•