After taking part in Special Olympics Arizona’s 10-week Steps to Better Health pilot program, 78% of athletes reduced waist circumference; 56% decreased Body Mass Index; 47% decreased body fat percentage; and 50% decreased systolic blood pressure. These impressive results surprised even the program organizer, Health Promotion Clinical Director David Paz.
Athlete Jackie Elliot celebrates after graduating from Special Olympics Arizona's Steps to Better Health Program
“We obviously aimed to get positive change, and I expected to get some improvements, but I didn’t expect to do so well,” he said.
The class was the result of a Health Promotion Community-Based Grant provided by Special Olympics Healthy Athletes and support from a number of other partners including Catholic Healthcare West which owns over 80 hospitals in the Southwest, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, the Walmart Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Arizona Recreational Center for the Handicapped. In addition to weekly lectures on improving health, the program incorporated surveys, exercise journals, food journals, and pre- and post Healthy Athletes screenings which allowed Paz to gauge its impact.
“If you just teach a lecture, you don’t have a way of knowing who is learning what,” Paz said.
Curriculum included information on bone density, sports nutrition, hydration and other topics. Paz developed the materials and “tailored the lectures to athletes in Arizona, and tailored it so they could understand, it was applicable to them, and they could see themselves doing it.”
Follow-ups to the lectures applied to the athletes’ lives. For instance, after one lecture about trans fats, Paz asked athletes to identify foods in their group home or parents’ home that have trans fats.
“The parents, caregivers, and athletes really invested a lot of themselves in the program,” Paz said. “One of the reasons why the participants were so dedicated was the fact that we went out into the community, and that really meant a lot to them.”
Originally designed for 10 participants, the program opened its doors to 41 athletes due to high demand for the class. In addition to the documented health improvements for participants, the program also empowered them, and may have impacted many others who didn’t even participate. For example, the vending machine at the recreational center where the classes were held was changed to include diet soda, not regular soda, and apple chips and baked chips rather than regular potato chips, all at the athletes’ request. Other participants went away from the class and requested healthier food and snacks be served at their group home.
“Participants were spreading the word for us. So, the group homes were changing the food they give all their residents, not because Special Olympics or someone else asked them to, but because it was what their residents wanted,” Paz said.
Although the pilot program ended with a graduation for the participants on April 21, Paz is optimistic that Special Olympics Arizona will be able to continue it, hopefully with continued funding from their partners.
To learn more about receiving a Community-Based Health Promotion grant for your Program, please contact Heather Parker at [email protected].