Sunday Strong Making a Difference
Did you know that the National Institute of Health (NIH) states people need 150 minutes of exercise a week? In a study by the NIH, they reported that only 9% of adults with intellectual disabilities met this health requirement. Laura Radocaj, a health enthusiast, was shocked by that number: She has since made it her mission to help improve the lives of the special need’s community by offering a workout program that is tailored specifically to adults with an intellectual disability. Laura’s involvement and passion in the special need’s community was first inspired by her sister, Maria, who has an intellectual disability. Sunday Strong is not only dedicated to improving overall health and wellness, but is also providing a safe and fun environment for inclusion to take place.
Sunday Strong is a nonprofit organization started in Vero Beach, Florida, by Laura Radocaj. Its mission is to increase physical activity in adults with intellectual disability by partnering with gyms to host one group exercise class per week at no cost to the athletes. The idea came when Laura was at a Special Olympics golf tournament with her sister Maria. When looking around the golf course, she realized how many of the athletes were in poor health condition. Laura started researching and found that adults with special needs are at risk for high blood pressure, low bone density, obesity, and more. When talking to Laura, she mentioned that her older sister, Maria, has always been happiest whenever she is working out and is living a healthy lifestyle. “As Maria’s sister and someone who is going to be taking care of Maria as she ages, this is very important. Health is a huge issue with adults with intellectual disabilities, so I wanted to do something about it” Laura said. She also wanted to create an environment that was only for adults and she states, “I think that it’s always important… I don’t think that you should mix minors and adults in any group class to begin with. A lot of times, when you go to these gyms, it’s really for an adult population.You’re working with a lot of equipment. There are a lot of programs out there tailored to younger children, but not so much for adults with special needs so Sunday Strong is an 18 year or older program.” Sunday Strong provides a variety of different workouts including Zumba, Yoga, CrossFit and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes taught by gym instructors.
Sunday Strong meets for an hour every Sunday and the results are incredible. One member of Sunday Strong started off and had never jogged before and can now jog 100 meters as a warmup! Laura explains the way people’s movements changed after working out, “we’ve seen so much in people’s movements, little things like when we work with free weights, being able to lock out your elbows. A lot of our athlete’s were not a able to do it, they had never done that full lockout movement. Also being able to jump two feet off the ground…I think when we first started, maybe one or two athletes could do that. Now, they can do two feet take off jumps. Even their posture has been improved, and we’ve seen tremendous improvement in the way they move.” Laura started noticing the weight loss and new goals being met from the class members, but she also said she noticed that certain life skills were being benefited by the workout class, as well. Not being able to get up off the ground is an important life skill. If you fall, you need to get back up. Squatting every day, when you go to the restroom, etc. All things that help people in their day-to-day movements helps them to live a better life in general. The results from the class were awesome. So awesome, in fact, that we started to expand with other gyms around town. Currently, they have five gyms that help host Sunday Strong classes. In addition, they are serving the community by having a Sunday Strong class five to six days of the week.
Laura says her goal is to have one every day of the week. They currently have over 30 athletes in Vero Beach/Indian River County area and hopes for this to become nationwide! Another thing that Sunday Strong provides is a great networking opportunity for individuals to meet and make new friends. “Each gym and each person who belong to a gym, is a health and wellness advocates. So, Maria goes to five of the Sunday Strong classes, and it’s expanded her network. She’s met people at the gym or while working out, and then sometimes we will see them out in the community and they say hello to one another and encourage one another. It just brings the community closer and gets people involved with this population that so badly needs our help in terms of health and wellness.”
Sunday Strong started out small: It was just one cross fit class a week at Vero Strength + Conditioning on Sunday and at the end of the class all of the participants circled up with one hand on top of one another and we all cheered “Sunday Strong.” It was powerful and that’s why we decided to call the program Sunday Strong. When Laura decided to try to expand class times and offerings of Sunday Strong, she went to the different gyms around town and explained the situation. The gym owners and fitness instructors are already at the gym. They already host these classes for their gym members. The trick is trying to get the owners on board and okay with not making money off these classes. The gyms need to agree. Sometimes, the gym owners will actually coach the class. Other times, you need people in their organization to sign up and be the instructor. Some gyms are on rotation. They’re the first Saturday of the week. Another coach is the second Saturday, etc…It all works together to get one group class that has a consistent day and time. Thankfully many of the gyms around town are eager to help and participate once they hear that it’s for a good cause. According to Laura, gym owners and volunteers say that Sunday Strong is the best hour of the week for them. This opportunity to partner with Sunday Strong allows people the chance to give back and make a direct difference in a person’s life. When Laura was vetting out different gyms and instructors, she made it known that she didn’t want instructors to treat the adults differently, in fact she even said, “treat them just like you would your normal clients”. And there are some things Sunday Strong does to help instructors and coaches onboarding in terms of how to act socially…. like repetition. In Zumba, doing the same routines over and over is good. Weightlifting, helping instructors know that down syndrome adults might be hyper flexible, so using the appropriate weights when they start is very critical. But in terms of their coaching, Laura knows they are experts and states, “I want them to do their thing. I just want them to feel comfortable with this group of individuals. And that’s what Sunday Strong is here to do: Help them with that and also help them get athletes in their doors and know about this class.”
Future for Sunday Strong
Ten years from now, Laura hopes to walk into gyms nationwide and see a Sunday Strong sticker saying, “We offer a Sunday Strong class here.” Laura continues saying, “What it has done for the gyms we work with has been incredible to see, not only for the athletes, but also for the volunteers, the caregivers, the coaches, and the instructors. Everybody loves being a part of it. And I would like every single gym to be a part of our mission and spread the Sunday Strong love.” Right now, Laura is looking for more gyms to participate and volunteers to help with the different classes.
If you, or someone you know, is interested in bringing Sunday Strong to your area, or if you are in a position to help, please contact Laura at www.sundaystrong.org or Facebook at www.facebook.com/besundaystrong.
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2020 Magazine