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Accessible Technology Empowers Blind Americans to Get Moving

Posted July 18, 2016  National Fitness Challenge

As children, we are introduced to sport and physical activity through physical education curriculums in grade school. We learn leadership and teamwork, and gain self-esteem and confidence through participation in sports. We experience the thrill of victory and the heartbreak of defeat which fuels a competitive spirit in those of us that go on to compete at a higher level. But children who are blind and visually impaired are often excluded from these formative opportunities, setting them up for unhealthy lifestyle habits that follow them into adulthood. These children have become part of the more than 11 million Americans who are blind and visually impaired that do not participate in any physical activity. But the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) and Link will open in a new windowAnthem Foundation are on a mission to change that.

Since 2011, USABA has partnered with Anthem Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Anthem Inc., to promote the benefits of physical activity and provide agencies serving the blind across the nation with resources to empower blind Americans to raise their physical activity to levels recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Together, they created the USABA-Anthem National Fitness Challenge, an initiative that provides sports and physical activity opportunities at the local level for youth and adults who are blind and visually impaired across the U.S.

In the fourth iteration of the USABA-Anthem National Fitness Challenge, grant funding from Anthem Foundation enabled USABA and partnering agencies to provide multi-sport camps, weekly sports programming, nutrition experts, in-home strength and conditioning exercise tips, and equipment to aid participants in accomplishing their goals. Partnering agencies also hosted Paralympic Days where participants and members of the community could try news sports and meet Paralympic athletes. The Paralympic Days inspired National Fitness Challenge participants and introduced local communities to adaptive sport.

Though we know the positive impacts of exercise – improved energy levels, lower risk of health-related diseases, improved psychological health, and lower rates of depression and anxiety – lack of knowledge and opportunity can hinder the motivation necessary to seek out opportunity for physical activity through adaptive sport. Through the National Fitness Challenge, USABA and Anthem Foundation provide a safe and encouraging environment to participate in physical activities and develop skills in sports like track & field, tandem cycling and goalball, a team sport for blind and visually impaired athletes.

To encourage social interaction, a sense of community, and friendly competition, participants received Fitbits. The wearable technology also tracked their progress by counting number of steps taken, calories burned and miles reached each day. Nearly 400 participants averaged 224 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, far surpassing the CDC-recommended 150 minutes per week. This was a result of USABA and its 12 partnering agencies coordinating and facilitating activities in sports like tandem cycling, rowing and ice skating throughout the duration of the 2015-2016 National Fitness Challenge.

Partnering agencies included:

Jackie Bumba, a participant at the Cleveland Sight Center in Ohio, tried multiple sports for the first time during the National Fitness Challenge, including ice skating. “Even though I fell a couple of times, it felt good to try something new. I wouldn’t have done that had it not been for the motivation to hit my daily step goal with my Fitbit.”

Grant funding from Anthem Foundation also helped partnering agencies build the necessary infrastructure so the programs and initiatives could continue long after the conclusion of the National Fitness Challenge. At the end of the 2015-2016 National Fitness Challenge, a total of 373 million steps were taken and 170,000 miles were recorded – but that’s just the beginning.

“Since we began the National Fitness Challenge with Anthem Foundation in 2011, USABA has seen many participants persevere and succeed after adopting healthier lifestyles,” said Mark Lucas, USABA’s executive director. “The National Fitness Challenge participants hold themselves accountable to staying active daily, making healthy eating choices and getting outside their comfort zone to try new activities and sports after the conclusion of the program.”

Bumba is one of many participants that continue to use their Fitbits after the conclusion of the National Fitness Challenge. “The Fitbit helps remind me that I need to do more. I now take the long way around the building, use the stairs, do laps around the building on my lunch break and take my dog for longer walks.”

Partner agencies like Turnstone Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will continue their sport programming to encourage long-term participation in physical activity and support healthy lifestyle changes. Turnstone hosted weekly goalball practices and formed two teams to compete in the USABA Goalball National Championships where the Turnstone Flyers women’s team took bronze.

The National Fitness Challenge is just one way USABA is changing lives through sport and physical activity. Our mission extends beyond grassroots initiatives like the National Fitness Challenge by offering sports programming for blinded military veterans, clinics for multiple sport instruction, and by providing support for elite athletes’ pursuit to compete in the Paralympic Games.