Volunteers at Healthy Athletes Health Promotion events spend time and energy teaching athletes about avoiding sugar and fat-filled snacks, the benefits of eating a bigger variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy eating habits. Yet, when the athletes leave the venue, the food choices that confront them, whether it is in their homes or even at the Special Olympics cafeteria, often don’t include healthy alternatives.
Volunteers in Athens, Greece counsel an athlete on proper nutrition. In addition to education, fruit and bottled water was given away in the Health Promotion venue.
“It’s confusing to athletes when we promote choices like fruits and vegetables when what is available is candy and cookies. But when the healthful choice is the easy choice, that's the one our athletes will make,” said Healthy Athletes Global Clinical Advisor Mary Pittaway.
Some Special Olympics events are working to address this. Most recently, during the recent games in Athens, Greece in May, event organizers provided athletes and volunteer’s water, fresh fruit and 100% fruit juices throughout the Healthy Athletes venue.
When Volunteers brought cases of bananas and water into the Health Promotion venue during the initial surge of athletes, everyone- athletes and volunteers alike- clapped their hands. Health Promotion has several stations following registration. Bone density, BMI, blood pressure screening and healthy behaviors interviews, followed by nutrition education, physical activity, hydration, sun safety practices and tobacco refusal skills. After athletes completed their nutrition sorting activity, “Which foods make you strong and healthy? Which foods don’t?” each chose a banana. More than 300 athletes left the venue with fruit and a bottle of water. In most cases, they were gone before leaving the venue. Waiting in Health Promotion queues offered a perfect opportunity to enjoy their snacks.
The success of this approach in Athens shows that changing the environment is a valuable tool to encourage behavior change when combined with the traditional methods used by Healthy Athletes including counseling and written materials.
“Traditional methods are often the most comfortable strategies but simply changing the environment may be a more effective approach,” Pittaway said.
Other programs are also trying to offer healthy snacks at events and had similar success. This year’s Special Olympics Northern Virginia Summer Games/Episcopal track meet included a lunch of a turkey or veggie sandwich, apples, bananas, granola bars, and water. Feedback was very positive, especially from parents. Similarly, during Special Olympics Arizona’s recent 10-week Steps to Better Health pilot program, athletes were offered bottled water, granola bars and other healthy snacks during lectures. In Montana, the challenge included Special Olympics staff overcoming their hesitation to ask those who historically donated lunches to make changes. For years, Montana’s athletes were offered sandwiches of bologna and mayonnaise on white bread; a bag of chips, sweetened soda and a large cookie for lunch. The Staff felt encouraged when donors enthusiastically agreed to provide healthier lunch alternatives including whole wheat bread, lean meats, lettuce (not iceberg), a piece of fresh fruit and a small cookie. A local dairy donated low fat unsweetened cartons of milk to complement the meal. Athletes, volunteers, coaches and families have been very appreciative of the changes.
Going forward, it makes sense for each discipline to explore other ways to "practice what we preach” at Special Olympics events and modify the environment to promote healthful behaviors. Potential strategies include: providing sun screen at outdoor events; scheduling outdoor events at times other than during the most direct sun exposure; and discouraging use of tobacco products at all practices and events.
Even though it may be intimidating for staff to make changes when planning events, caring for the health needs of the athletes is an important part of the Healthy Athletes mission.