Helping Disabled Adults Improve Conditioning

The goals for the 2014 recipients of Merrimack College's Paul E. Murray Fellowship for science and engineering programs seemed straightforward enough, but the results went beyond the level of a calculated scientific study and touched a human cord that resonated with students and faculty.

Health Sciences Department assistant professor Zi Yan led the study with assistant professor Michael Corcoran and associate professor Kevin Finn exploring the effectiveness of using college students to promote physical fitness among adults with intellectual disabilities — all the while providing 30 sophomores in the health behavior and promotion class a chance to gain hands-on experience.

“As a health professional we need (students) to have experiences with people with disabilities,” Yan said.

Exercise is often a serious problem for adults with disabilities, Corcoran said. They are frequently obese with bad diets and don’t have the ability to make good lifestyle choices.

“Zi designed this study to meet the needs to provide these adults with physical activity,” Corcoran said.

Each student was assigned a peer from the CLASS/Arc of Greater Lawrence and designed a unique physical activity program for each one.

Finn and Corcoran helped Yan develop exercise protocols and assessments. “In our department, we all have different areas of expertise,” Yan said.

When the program was put in practice, students worked one-on-one helping adults who are served by the non-profit CLASS/Arc of Greater Lawrence get physical activity twice a week.

The program was designed for students to help their peers improve their cardiovascular endurance, balance, and upper- and lower-body strength.

“So, basically it’s education to change their mindset and get them motivated,” Yan said. “The second part is getting them to exercise.”

Since most of the CLASS clients typically had poor physical conditioning, the Merrimack students started with a simple routine of walking one-on-one with their partners and developing a rapport, Yan said.

Students helped design individualized exercise programs in early 2014 and gradually increased the workload over six weeks.

It was a before-and-after experiment, Yan said. Students measured each participant’s balance before the six-week program and afterward. Their findings were “statistically significant,” she said.

Results were so successful, the Health Sciences Department continued its partnership with CLASS.

“Each semester we’ll have students doing something related to this work at CLASS,” Yan said.

There are multiple projects between Merrimack and CLASS now, said CLASS Marketing Director Robin Ellington.

CLASS got a Ronald McDonald’s Charities grant to start an afterschool program for CLASS clients at Andover High School that’s run every semester since the fall of 2014. The 2016 spring semester program started Jan. 25.

“It was so successful and folks loved it so much we obtained a grant and are running fitness programs at Andover High School and the Merrimack College students in Zi’s classes are the mentors and buddies,” Ellington said. “We are in our second year.” CLASS also got a New Balance grant to start a similar program at Lawrence High School that should be running before the end of the current semester, Ellington said. That program is expected to include UMass Lowell students as well as Merrimack students.

The Murray Fund was established in the 1980s to enrich Merrimack’s science and engineering education programs. Yan’s team was awarded a $10,000 stipend from the Murray Fellowship. The stipend was used to buy exercise equipment that was donated to CLASS.

The Paul E. Murray Fellowship promotes science and engineering research to enhance the value of classroom teaching. It was established during the 2001-2002 school year.



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