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SPARK: An On-Campus Wellness Initiative Facilitated by the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education

 

By Jeffrey Lynham

Danielle Lawrence is the Practice Coordinator for UofT’s Secondary Prevention and Rehabilitation Kinesiology (SPARK) program, an on-campus program facilitated by the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. SPARK is a 10-12 week program, where UofT students experiencing high stress or mental health concerns are given the opportunity to work one-on-one with a student in the Master of Professional Kinesiology (MPK) program, to execute an exercise plan (developed by MPK students) based on their goals, health, and activity levels.

Over the past four years, SPARK has partnered with Health & Wellness, along with embedded wellness counsellors in various faculties, to provide and promote this service to UofT students. I sat down with Danielle to learn more about the SPARK program.

How did the SPARK program first get started?

SPARK is part of the MPK Program offered at UofT. Within this Program, MPK graduate students have the option to select one of four in-house placements, with SPARK being one of them. The initiative behind these placements was for students to get first-hand experience in working with different populations before they do their external placements, to enhance their clinical skills, and for career development.

Our MPK students get the opportunity to work with two populations throughout the duration of the SPARK Program: those living with a chronic disease and UofT students living with mental health concerns. SPARK has been running for four years now. We're still learning and growing but I'd say over the last year and a half it's grown a lot!

Could you take our readers through what it’s like to go through the program from beginning to end?

Both UofT students and those from the community living with a chronic disease are referred to the program by a health care provider. This can be a family doctor, physiotherapist, psychologist, social worker, or student advisor. Once I receive the referral and complete all necessary screening questionnaires and enrolment forms, I then pair them with an MPK student. I try to be deliberate with my pairing because having a good match is important for both participants and MPK students and their learning. Once that’s in place, the participant will meet their MPK student and they complete an initial assessment. This initial assessment includes baseline fitness testing, goal setting, building rapport, and ultimately getting a sense of what the participant wants to get out of the program. After collecting all of that information, our graduate students can then create and implement an exercise plan for them over a 10-12 week period. Participants have the opportunity to exercise with their MPK student at the Athletic Centre, Goldring Centre, or Hart House, using machines in the weight room, doing a class, playing squash, or whatever activity they both choose. Throughout the program, our MPK students complete goal setting and weekly check-ins to make sure that both parties are on track. At the end, our students complete a final assessment, where we repeat all of the baseline tests to note any changes or progress made over the last three months. Each participant receives a printout and a discharge summary of how they have done throughout the program.

Each participant also receives a journal where they can write in their weekly exercise programs. This enables them to have something tangible, which they can then take with them to help continue the exercise routine they have established during SPARK. Our goal is to not only help participants achieve their health and wellness goals, but to help improve their health literacy and to become more independent and confident when completing exercise in the community.

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Do these exercise programs require gym equipment, or can a participant do these exercises at home?

Whether our participants have access to the Athletic Centre and other gym facilities, or whether they want to use exercise bands, or no equipment, or anything at home, we ensure that our exercise plans cater to that. We want to give our participants the skills needed for implementation and execution of their exercise plan. We want people to succeed and thrive. Having all of that information is what's going to help.

How is progress measured?

Progress is directly measured at the end of the program with the use of our fitness assessments, which are completed at the beginning and the end of the program. In addition to physical wellness, we have an emotional wellness questionnaire, which is completed on a weekly basis. This wellness questionnaire asks participants about items such as stress levels, sleep quality, and fatigue/soreness. By having participants fill in the questionnaire every week, they can see how they are improving. If they’re not improving, we can ask them what may have changed.

Goal setting is another way we measure progress. Every few weeks our MPK students ask their participants how things are going. We ask them, “What’s working well? What could be changed?” At the midpoint of the program, we complete a formal sit-down goal-setting session to address their baseline goals and ask, “These were the goals that we had set when we first started. How are they going for you now? What are some things that we can do to support you with that? Are there any barriers that you feel are in the way of that? Are there any new goals you have?”

Since the MPK students are students themselves, they can easily relate to our UofT participants. If someone has three exams in one week, they say, “That's really tough, I get it, but you made it in here, and that's amazing. Let's try to work out.” And that’s a huge accomplishment. It's nice that there's that rapport with the students.

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What advice would you give to someone who says they are too busy to work out?

My first piece of advice would be don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s very easy for us to be self-critical and to beat ourselves up if we’ve missed a week or two of exercise. Life happens. We all have those moments where we lose track of the routine that we’ve created for ourselves, and that's okay. Don’t get down on yourself and try it again the next week.

The next piece of advice would be to think of exercise as a priority in your life, just like going to school or brushing your teeth. This may not work for everyone but there are two things that I do that I find helpful when I need that motivation to get out. One is writing it down. I have an agenda, and when I schedule in a workout, I am more accountable, and I will stick to it. Second, it also helps to have a gym or workout friend to make me accountable. Also, if I don’t have someone to go to the gym with, I enroll in a class. If I paid or signed up for a spin class, I will likely get out the door and do it.

Has there been a success story that has really stood out to you?

A few years ago, there was a UofT student who was having challenges just coming to the program. They were missing many sessions, and they were having a very difficult time. At about the halfway point, or three quarters into the SPARK program, this participant began to attend the program more regularly, even if only to walk around the track with their MPK student. Upon completion of the program months later, I received an email from the MPK student noting that they now regularly see their previous UofT SPARK participant exercising all the time! That person, who previously struggled to get out of bed to come to our program, was able to find something that they enjoyed and were now doing it consistently and feeling great. That was really nice to hear.

For more information about the SPARK program, send an email to spark@utoronto.ca.

Edited by Emma Syron & Kate Rzadki