This article was originally posted in Exceptional Parent Magazine.
When Beth Donahue and her mother Gina—her bootcamp co-teacher—are asked what makes them feel proud, it is not some of the typical things you might expect because Beth has quite the fitness resume. She has worked with the Boston Bruins Foundation to promote health. She has presented to thousands at national sports conferences, trained top athletes, and been featured in national publications. Beth—who has Down syndrom—teaches, competes, leads and excels. She is proudest when she is helping others reach their fitness goals. “When I see other Special Olympics athletes in my bootcamp having fun, getting stronger and more confident, that motivates me to keep going!” Donahue shares.
So, when Special Olympics had the opportunity to partner with WWE to develop a brand-new fitness resource for individuals of all abilities, Beth’s skills were a perfect fit. Together, Beth and five other Special Olympics athletes joined WWE Superstar Becky Lynch to develop the School of Strength fitness campaign, an engaging 30-minute workout video series where athletes are participating in a series of exercises to achieve varying levels of fitness, including Superstar Trainer, Champion Trainer and Master Trainer levels.
“Being in the WWE video meant I could be part of a bigger push to spread the message that a healthy lifestyle is something everyone can achieve. We filmed different versions of exercises so all people could be successful. We are not only Special Olympics athletes but also members of the community with jobs, and we all can contribute in different ways.”
Targeting Special Olympics athletes in their teens and late 20s, this free, fun fitness resource lives on www.specialolympics.org/school-of-strength and features four cardio, balance and endurance-focused workout videos with increasing levels of exertion. The videos are accompanied by downloadable interactive toolkits for coaches and caregivers that feature recipes, a fitness tracker, games and health tips. The School of Strength campaign was created in response to Special Olympics athletes’ requests for the development of more fitness content that excites and inspires them to stay fit year-round, helping them to commit to a lifetime of fitness habits. Developed in an interactive and encouraging style, the call to action is clear—get active and do your best.
“People can relate to us, and after seeing the video, they will hopefully be inspired to join us!” says Donahue. “I have some great memories from the video. Becky Lynch is a role model of fitness. You can tell it’s an important part of her success. She has a good sense of humor and she motivated us all to work hard and have fun at the same time.”
Vince Egan, another School of Strength video participant and fellow Special Olympics athlete from Colorado shares, “I was so excited to be a part of the fitness video. I love the WWE and when I found out they were a partner, I wanted to do it even more. Meeting Becky Lynch was a real bonus. My best memory was working with the great team of athletes and the crew. Everyone was awesome.”
Special Olympics fitness programs focus on physical activity, hydration and nutrition and offer year-round fitness clubs, fitness challenges for friends and families, as well as wellness classes. The School of Strength campaign is the latest addition in a selection of fitness resources created for Special Olympics athletes. Developed in 2017, the Fit 5 resource series accompanies the School of Strength campaign resources and educates and empowers athletes to live a healthy lifestyle with the promotion of fitness cards, videos, and a guide that emphasizes exercising 5 days per week, eating 5 total fruits and vegetables per day and drinking 5 bottles of water per day. Both the Fit 5 resources and the School of Strength campaign support a more unified approach to fitness, where people with intellectual disabilities can join their friends and family members for workouts in their homes or on the go. To date, the Fit 5 resources have been utilized by over 50 Special Olympics Programs in 36 countries. Special Olympics fitness programming has demonstrated strong impacts on health behaviors and health outcomes:
- 32 percent of athletes increased their levels of physical activity;
- More than a quarter of overweight athletes lost at least 3 pounds and;
- Overweight athletes with high blood pressure went from 140/95 to 134/90 on average.
“Currently, people with intellectual disability face significant challenges in obtaining opportunities that promote fitness and wellness, resulting in pronounced health disparities and reduced life expectancy. We know that individuals with intellectual disability die on average 16 years earlier than those without intellectual disability,” said Dr. Alicia Bazzano, Chief Health Officer, Special Olympics. “Fitness plays a vital role in sports performance. Our athletes are fierce competitors that should have the same opportunities as everyone else to stay fit year-round. We are changing the face of inclusive health by continuing to provide opportunities for our athletes to be included. The School of Strength campaign is a fantastic asset that encourages our athletes to not only stretch their fitness goals, but stay committed to their fitness journeys.”