Research, student training and community benefit collide in ASU exercise program
Top 40 hits blast from the speakers as Haley Santiago and Larry Merville pass a basketball back and forth across the wooden floor of a basement workout room at the Lincoln Family YMCA on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.
They finish the set and Santiago asks, “How’d that feel?”
“Good!” Merville replies, giving her a high five.
Off in a corner, Trevor Weinstock kneels at the feet of Marcus SanTellan, holding his red and black adidas sneakers against the floor as SanTellan lifts his torso up toward his legs, then lowers it back down to the ground.
“C’mon Marcus, you got this,” Weinstock tells him.
On the surface, this scene seems like any other afternoon at the Y — except that Santiago and Weinstock are College of Health Solutions students at Arizona State University and Merville and SanTellan have Down syndrome.
The class is part of ASU Clinical Assistant Professor Simon Holzapfel’s Exercise Program for Adults with Down Syndrome, or ExDS for short.
Holzapfel said he created the free program, which officially launched in August, because there was a need among the Down syndrome community.
“Adults with Down syndrome are usually very inactive, and on average they don’t engage in enough physical activity compared to what is recommended … and they’re also at a very high risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as they age,” he said. “So through physical activity, we hope to at least delay some of those age-related declines.”
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
Holzapfel’s interest in working with special populations was sparked when he volunteered for a program called Kentucky Adaptive Physical Education while working on his master’s degree. Once a week, he would provide a physical activity program for people with varying types of disabilities.
Soon after, he heard about the work of ASU Associate Professor Shannon Ringenbach, who was conducting research on the effects of exercise on cognitive function in people with Down syndrome. Holzapfel made the decision to come to ASU to for his PhD and joined Ringenbach’s research team.
During that time, as he got to know members of the Down syndrome community, he realized there weren’t many effective exercise opportunities for them.
“I wanted to offer something more permanent, appropriate and purposeful,” Holzapfel said.
He thinks of ExDS as killing not two, but three birds with one stone: community engagement, hands-on learning and research opportunities.
“We’re doing the community exercise program to benefit our members in the community with Down syndrome, students are benefiting due to the didactic class aspect of it, and then there’s the research aspect of it, which will hopefully show other people through publications in the future that this kind of program can work and can be effective,” he said.