Physically Active Residential Communities (PARC) is a physical activity and health promotion program that is delivered by university students to public housing community residents at public housing home sites. Minorities and those living in disadvantaged communities are the least likely groups to participate in physical activity and the most likely to develop hypokinetic diseases. Nationally and internationally, public housing units have served as sites for health promotion programs and research interventions related to nutrition, asthma, and safe sexual activity. There has been some research focused on crime and the built environment as it relates to physical activity participation among public housing community residents (1). There also are a few studies that have delivered exercise interventions to enhance physical activity participation and the overall health of public housing residents. These studies found that when residents perceived the opportunities for physical activity as being safe, relatively easy to access, and suitable for their level of ability, residents were more likely to be physically active (1-4). PARC was designed through the consideration of findings in existing literature related to public housing, physical activity interventions, and health disparities. Additional strategies were used from the early stages of a community-based participatory research model while using exercise science students who believe that civic engagement in the form of community service is important.
The Indianapolis Housing Agency (IHA) has 13 public housing communities with approximately 1,800 units with 3,300 residents and approximately 6,900 Section 8 units with 18,400 residents. Section 8 is a rental voucher program where the housing authority pays a percentage of the rent and increases the affordable housing choices for very low-income families by allowing them to choose privately owned rental housing. The partnerships were formed in the following manner. Through monthly resident council meetings, several community residents requested exercise programs to the IHA ROSS Family Manager who is a manager within the Resident Relations Department in charge of identifying resident needs and service providers to meet resident needs. Residents requested that opportunities for exercise be made available and accessible to IHA residents. The IHA manager was familiar with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) because of its recent Exercise is Medicine™ and American Fitness Index campaigns; both programs promote physical activity to improve population health. In April 2009, the IHA manager contacted an ACSM staff member for leadership and direction in program development and delivery. The ACSM staff contacted me because of my relationship with ACSM and my close proximity to their National Center. The campus of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) is across the street from ACSM's National Center. IUPUI has a strong commitment to civic engagement, and the IUPUI Center for Service and Learning has won several national awards in recognition of the civic engagement and service learning activities of IUPUI faculty, staff, and students. IUPUI students are encouraged and, in some cases, required to perform service learning activities for academic credit. The university strives to make service and engagement a part of each student's personal and professional culture. Even in the summer months, it was not difficult to find students who were eager to volunteer for the experiences PARC provides. The initial PARC partnership was formed and included IHA and ACSM staff members, IHA community residents, and students and faculty from the IUPUI Department of Physical Education. Two IUPUI exercise science students took a leadership role in the PARC project. PARC is currently offered in four IHA communities. Other sites have requested PARC and are being considered to receive PARC programming. Both men and women participate in PARC. Most PARC participants range in age from 30 to 70 years old, although no one is excluded because of age or ability. The student leaders do an excellent job of modifying activities for the varied abilities of participants; some are regular exercisers, some are wheelchair bound, and others were previously sedentary.
The mission of PARC is to offer a wellness program for IHA communities to address and potentially improve all fitness categories of those residents who participate. Students offer their services to make a positive impact on the individual residents and the community as a whole. PARC participants allow students to use them to practice their physical assessment skills including body height and weight to calculate body mass index, the chair sit-and-reach test for lower-body flexibility, the "zipper" test for upper-body flexibility, the chair stand test for lower-body strength and endurance, and the biceps curl test for upper-body strength and endurance, as well as resting and exercise heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, students benefit through their experiences with program administration, physical activity and health counseling, and exercise leadership for residents of all ages and ability levels. All PARC activities are intended to be learned by participants so that they are comfortable with the exercises during the group sessions and when they are participating in physical activities independently. Specifically, activities include fitness walking, dance aerobics, chair aerobics, and resistance training using bands and one's own body for resistance. Each session is composed of an activity that is intended to improve social interaction (approximately 15 minutes in length), a warm-up (5 minutes), flexibility exercises (5 minutes), a low-to-moderate aerobic and muscular endurance session (20-30 minutes), a cooldown (5 minutes), and more flexibility exercises (5 minutes). The social interaction activities involve a conversation topic that helps the students and residents get to know one another better. Examples of topics include "What was your favorite vacation ever?" or "List an adjective that begins with the same letter of your first name and describes your personality." The flexibility exercises target the major large muscle groups and are intended to help increase mobility and avoid injury. Exercises are progressive, and the students teach the participants to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale to exercise at the appropriate level of difficulty. Students have hosted meetings, focus groups, and health fairs for the residents for the purpose of teaching and learning from one another. These activities also are meant to recruit additional participants. ACSM supports these activities by offering free 1-year student memberships to students who complete several months of volunteering.
PARC works because its initial and continued development and implementation involve partners who each have a need that can be met by partnering groups and an opportunity to provide a service to the other partners. IHA and its community members desire a physical activity and health promotion program and provide opportunities for students to receive practical experience in a diverse population of people. ACSM values student membership and constantly seeks ways by which students can be engaged in organizational activities and provides complementary student memberships to student volunteers. University students who are trained in physical activity leadership, health fitness assessment, and health promotion at a civically engaged academic institution receive opportunities to learn while delivering a service, gaining practical experience, and building their résumé. In addition, PARC is a potential resource for research related to physical activity in minority and disadvantaged communities. PARC provides a basis for true community-based participatory research because the community identified the need, sought partners, participated and continue to participate in the program's development and implementation. Any research study that evolves from PARC will include community members in both intervention and dissemination activities.
The partnering organizations are creating a program that can easily be duplicated in other cities that have similar university and housing agency resources. The ACSM staff also is willing to leverage its national influence to promote PARC across the United States. Civic engagement and service learning by university students are becoming increasingly recognized by academic institutions and local, state, and national governments as methods to improve communities that share university borders while improving university student learning experiences and eventually creating more civically engaged philanthropic citizens. University students are a largely untapped resource that can be used in these and other health promotion activities that will eventually develop their professional skills.
The PARC program is in its developmental stages and does not yet have a Web site. For more information regarding PARC's development and implementation, please contact NiCole Keith at email@example.com.
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