Rec-Connect™ makes fitness fun for everyone

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Across the state, Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Rec-Connect™ demonstration series is being used in communities to inspire and empower people to engage regularly in physical activity. Rec-Connect™ offers accessible activities for participants of all ages so they can make physical activity part of their regular routine. In a disconnected world, Rec-Connect™ also brings people together in their communities through physical activity. 
Rec-Connect™ is made possible by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan. 

People play at the Fitlot outdoor fitness park at Rotary Park in Lansing. "Physical activity promotion was integrated into SNAP-Ed about 10 years ago,” says Sarah Panken, MFF senior director of community impact. “Today, SNAP-Ed is one of the largest funding sources for physical activity programming in the nation. Michigan was an early adopter – providing physical activity demonstrations or what we call 'tastings' that align with our SNAP-Ed programming. Packaging the physical activity demonstrations as 'tastings' is a user-friendly way for SNAP-Ed community educators to introduce physical activity in the community. Like a food tasting, physical activity tastings are also a great way for people to sample a variety of ways to be active so they can find something they like.”  
MFF partners delivering SNAP-Ed locally offer Rec-Connect™ in part because the physical activity demonstrations meet their community’s needs. They are easy, open to all, and can be offered in convenient, welcoming locations. 
"The activities are designed to be the low-burden entry points — and fun," Panken says. "It’s community-based physical activity for all ages and abilities." 

People enjoy a winter trail adventure in Muskegon.
For example, the Wayne State University Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative offers high school students in Detroit Public Schools Community District Rec-Connect™ activities like cardio kick, kickboxing, Zumba, and yoga. Heading north to the Upper Peninsula, Bay Mills Community College, in collaboration with the Bay Mills Indian Community, delivers Rec-Connect™ including traditional dance and games. And, in Michigan’s capital city, Child and Family Charities leads Rec-Connect™ demonstrations at the South Lansing Farmers Market.  
“Each year, we have more and more organizations using Rec-Connect™,” explains Panken. “It is a great initiative. Rec-Connect™ helps shift perspectives by inspiring people to be active, helping them find others who want to be active in similar ways, and lifts up community sites and opportunities where people can be physically active together.” 

People climb the stairs at Kruse Park in Muskegon. In addition to those mentioned, Rec-Connect™ is being offered as part of 20 other SNAP-Ed programs across the state. MFF program managers also provide SNAP-Ed partners with Rec-Connect™ training and technical assistance, survey tools, activity leader guides, and marketing materials and messages, and help with program evaluation. 
"I have a personal passion for physical activity," says Jocelyn Hayward, MFF program manager. "I really appreciate that Rec-Connect™ is a community-based resource. It’s not expecting people to go out and exercise on their own, but instead it turns physical activity into something fun that you engage in with other people." 
Because Rec-Connect™ is community-based, people and families can become more active and connected by exploring local physical activity resources such as local parks and trails together.  

Other Rec-Connect™ physical activities include beach ball games, kite flying, or hula hooping that harken back to childhood and make Rec-Connect™ more accessible and relevant. When Rec-Connect™ is delivered as part of a local SNAP-Ed program, MFF provides reinforcing items, like beach balls, kites, and hula hoops, to help participants continue those physical activities at home. 
"It’s much more about having fun with other people, moving your body in ways that you're comfortable moving in safe, fun spaces in your own community," Hayward says. "It's also about building connections. I think that's really important in this day and age, to expand ways in which people can be connected to each other, connected to their own bodies in a joyful way, and find places to be connected within their community." 
"Our Rec-Connect™ materials are comprehensive. We have 11 activity guides that walk educators through the different physical activity demonstrations," Hayward says. "There are also handouts for participants to take home so they can continue to be physically active together after the demonstrations." 

People walk at Ed Henning County Park in Newaygo. At the start of the pandemic, MFF decided it was time to transition the program from hard copy print materials to a digital format. At the same time, they asked organizations using Rec-Connect™, physical activity experts, and curriculum instructional designers to review and assess the content and materials. 
“Converting to digital distribution became our goal,” shares Panken. “Having the feedback from our partners and other content experts during the review and revision process was vital as it helped us move this work forward and make improvements to the program.” 
All provided valuable insights. MFF made updates to the program curricula, resources, and materials to work on a digital platform. While the updates help with delivery, the general premise remains. Rec-Connect™ activities are designed to connect people in their communities through fun, free or low-cost physical activities designed for all ages and packaged to provide comprehensive educational materials and support for educators. 
"It’s the community-based physical activity aspect of the program that builds partnerships and connects people to a social network that will support them with continuing that healthy behavior," Panken concludes. "Having social support is so important. In addition to bringing people together, it can encourage people to practice healthy behaviors that last throughout their lives." 
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