With groundbreaking physical training program, Mission Project participants able to stay active, independent

Tim Crough works with Alex Conner on a balancing exercise during an MPower group class.

Ask Alex Conner what she did for exercise a couple of years ago, and there’s no hemming and hawing.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just stayed at home did nothing.”

Today, though, she’s a fitness fanatic. Twice a week she participates in a group training class that puts her through a series of exercises designed to improve flexibility, strength and stability. Every day — usually two times a day — she’ll hit the streets around her apartment in Mission to go for a long walk. And even when she’s at home, she can’t help but get moving.

Alex Conner has lost weight and gained strength and stability after two years in the MPower project, giving her improved quality of life.

“I like to dance around the apartment,” she said.

Conner is one of the success stories out of an initiative launched by The Mission Project two years ago designed to address some of the common physical issues that prevent adults with developmental disabilities from enjoying their highest quality of life.

Tim Crough, the founder of Move Right KC, a studio in downtown Overland Park, already had some experience working with people with developmental disabilities on physical fitness through his time as a trainer at the Sylvester Powell, Jr., Community Center when The Mission Project’s executive director Sarah Mai connected with him in late 2015 about the idea for the program. (The two knew each other from high school, having both graduated from SM North in 1995).

Cognitive differences may be the symptoms most often associated with conditions like Down Syndrome or autism, Mai said, but the population often experiences significant physical issues, like chronic joint pain or lack of balance. With the Mission Project’s goal of providing people with developmental disabilities the chance to live independently, Mai recognized that physical weaknesses were hampering Mission Project participants’ ability to stay on their own.

After getting pilot funding for the project, Crough set about designing a series of classes that would focus on improving the clients’ functionality, a structure that bucked the conventional wisdom that circuit training on machines was the best approach to a fitness program for the population.

“You can have a varied routine that is a lot more dynamic and a lot more functional to their lives than machines will ever be,” Crough said.

The approach proved a success. When Conner first entered the program, for example, Crough’s assessment identified that she had balance and stability issues that were typical for a 50-year-old who didn’t exercise very much. Through individualized training with MPower, Conner improved her core strength and balance allowing her to live a “higher quality of live with much less risk of incurring acute injury and/or chronic pain,” according to her most recent MPower assessment. She lost more than 20 pounds along the way, and adopted an active lifestyle.

“It’s a complete individualisation for their needs,” said Mai. “And when you address these physical issues, you improve their ability to live independently for a long time.”

And the benefits have extended beyond just Conner herself.

“My mom has started exercising more now,” she said. “She sees me doing it and wants to do it too.”