Creating Environments That Support Physical Activity

by Together Counts Partner | May 12, 2015 at 11:51 am | comments

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We know that regular physical activity can help enhance and protect our health. Yet only about 1 in 4 of us gets the daily recommended amount! Are we lazy? Are there too few opportunities to include fun activity in our day to day life? How can we energize our daily life?

As a member of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) and its Together Counts™ program, we strive for ways to incorporate energy balance into our athletes’ daily lives.

For the first 15 years of his life, Coulter lived a pretty isolated and unhealthy lifestyle.  He went to school and then went home.  He spent most of his days alone. He desperately needed friends and a meaningful place to spend his time. Now he comes to his local YMCA for training and practice, 4-5 times a week. He is an All Star athlete now, participating in multiple sports, from downhill skiing to floor hockey and basketball and more. He has handful of Special Olympics Medals and lost 25 pounds!  Most importantly, Coulter has found a sense of belonging. YMCA adaptive programming is about so much more than sports. For people with intellectual disabilities, The Y’s Adaptive and Special Olympic programs are often the only place they feel a sense of belonging and community. 

Here’s my take on what an environment supportive of physical activity might look like, one where we might all find regular physical activity irresistible.

  • Start enjoying physical play with other age matched peers early on. Play dates can double as this for kids too!
  • Gain exposure to many activities and sports, and have the opportunity to join in those that look challenging and fun.
  • Once one or more favorites are chosen, join others in supervised skill building opportunities.
  • Participate in regular, safe sports practice, supervised by trained and committed coaches.
  • Snacks and beverages offered during practice and competitions are those that are full of nutrients that promote health.
  • Awards for success are given, and honor and recognition are earned by being a good team player, rather than being the star.
  • Long term friendships between team members as well as their families are nurtured.
  • Leadership opportunities, social events like dances, and road trips for participants are included!
  • To support, maintain and enhance our athletes’ overall health, volunteer health professionals provide screenings, education and referrals for care so potential health risks can be nipped in the bud. Screenings include vision, hearing and dental exams, and bone density testing for adult athletes, routine height, weight, blood pressure screening, foot and fitness exams, as well. Participants are referred for follow-up if any scores warrant this.

Is this even feasible? Well this environment actually exists throughout the US and in 170 countries throughout the world.  More than 4 million athletes participate in Special Olympics, which provides an ideal environment to foster lifelong love of physical activity, health, well-being, joy and social inclusion. Not all of us are eligible to become Special Olympics athletes, but we can all become involved as volunteers, mentors, coaches, program planners and fans. For information contact

Mary, a Global Clinical Advisor working with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Health Promotion Programs, is a Registered Dietitian with over 30 years’ experience in public health. She teaches at the University of Montana, Department of Health and Human Performance.