by Meredith Dault
May 31, 2011
Dr. Latimer’s current research spans two areas: how to effectively communicate health information, and how to promote physical activity for people with physical disabilities (“though the two are starting to intertwine!” she says with a laugh). She explains that it was while doing graduate work in Health and Exercise Psychology at McMaster that she first came upon a new stream of research looking at the benefits of exercise for people with spinal cord injuries. Dr. Latimer was intrigued. “It became clear that there was a lot of room to improve and to make a difference in people’s lives. That kind of spurred me into that area.”
One of Dr. Latimer’s current projects, Revved Up, is a community initiative geared at helping adults with physical disabilities. Participants meet twice a week with a volunteer exercise assistant and follow a prescribed exercise regiment, using specially adapted equipment. “There was a realization that residents in the Kingston community with a disability had nowhere to exercise,” says Dr. Latimer, who serves as the program’s Executive Director.
“Many facilities aren’t accessible, or there’s no specific program.” Dr. Latimer adds that adults with mobility impairment face more than just physical barriers when it comes to exercise. “They also face a lack of knowledge,” she says. “They don’t know what exercises they can do, or how hard they can work.”
Though it was first started with funding from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the program is now funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. After welcoming its first participant in 2007, it now has a fully accessible gym on the fifth floor of the building that houses the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. It is equipped with treadmills and bikes adapted for wheelchair users, free weights and pulleys, and weight machines. Participants work closely with volunteers from the Queen’s community, including students.
The program, which currently has about 40 participants and runs four days a week at two locations (two days on the Queen’s campus, and two days at the St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital in Kingston) provides university researchers with access to valuable data. “We have an on-going system to track progress,” says Dr. Latimer, who supervises four graduate students and eight undergraduates. “Students pilot test questionnaires, interview techniques, or intervention ideas with participants. We also ask research questions like, ‘what are the benefits of participation for the volunteers? What skills do they gain? What knowledge do they develop’?”
Dr. Latimer says the program is also moving forward with more opportunities for movement beyond the gym. She is envisioning a monthly sport and social club for people with disabilities. “We just had a curling event,” says Dr. Latimer, giving an example of what she thinks is possible in the future. “Paralympic gold medalist Karen Blachford came out and gave a lesson. We had between 15 and 20 people, with wheelchairs on the ice.” While playing in a wheelchair means there is no sweeping, Dr. Latimer says it means players actually have to be highly accurate with each throw. “Arguably, it requires more skill than Olympic curling,” she says.
Dr. Latimer, who has also been working with the Canadian Paraplegic Association of Ontario to help them promote exercise with their clients, says that at the end of the day, she wants her work to make lives better. “I think sometimes you can feel down on your research and you wonder, ‘is it making a difference?’, she says. “And then you pop into Revved Up and you realize, oh, it is!”
Dr. Latimer smiles as she describes a program participant who lost some of her mobility after a stroke at age 25. “She can now get dressed by herself. She now has the strength to lift her arms.” She says for many participants it’s about getting strong enough to do small-but-important things like move from a wheelchair to a bed unassisted. She says the program’s social component is also important. “It helps people feel part of a community. There’s a sense of belonging. Our idea is to make Kingston one of the most active communities for people with disabilities.”