After a chaotic 2020 school year filled with distance learning and canceled athletic seasons, many student athletes are eager to return to regular physical activity. But that can be a challenge when a school’s fitness space is limited or in great need of new equipment.
At Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, MN, the fitness center and weight training equipment has not been updated for decades. In a dimly lit space, rusted barbells sat on the weathered floor next to ripped and tattered weight benches.
“I would go there all the time to work out and it would feel so crowded because they put equipment on both sides,” said Mu Tha Thor, a senior soccer player at Washington Technology. “Some people would go in there with anxiety because it was so close and small.”
To help create a space that helps keep students safe and active, UnitedHealthcare volunteers with the “Do Good. Live Well.” initiative joined forces with the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation and its Team8 Tour — a national campaign on a mission to build healthier communities. Together, they worked to renovate and upgrade the school’s fitness and activity spaces, replacing the flooring and assembling new equipment. As part of the event, volunteers also helped revitalize the school’s garden and prepped a healthy meal for students and staff.
“It means a lot because we have a high population of free and reduced lunch. The reality is, it’s an impoverished area so of course budget is always a challenge,” said Stacie Bonnick, principal of Washington Technology Magnet School. “I don’t think these areas have had any upgrades to them since the building was built.”
UnitedHealthcare and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation co-founded the Team8 Tour in 2016 to help create safe, updated fitness spaces for students across the country to help reduce childhood obesity. To date, thousands of volunteers have participated in a variety of service projects to help support these schools, impacting more than 55,000 kids through more than $1.7 million in donations.
For Ryan Johnson, volunteering on this project with UnitedHealthcare was a bit of a homecoming. Ryan was a student at Washington Technology back when it was first built in 1996. He was surprised to see not much changed in the fitness areas since then.
“We pulled out the floor that I used to lift weights on in the weight room when I ran cross country so I could tell everyone, you know, the flooring here has been here for over 20 years and now we’re taking it apart,” he said. “It was cool to see and put together some new equipment to give the students the opportunity to succeed the best that they can.”
The Team8 Tour’s mission is to encourage young people to make healthy choices, build character and learn critical life lessons that will inspire them to be catalysts for positive social change — something that aligns well with the goals of UnitedHealthcare.
“Our mission is to help people live healthier lives and one way that you can achieve that is through helping youth have access to healthy lifestyles,” said Brett Edelson, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Minnesota. “That’s something that will also serve them well in adulthood and influence their friends and families, as well.”
Only 24% of children between the ages of 6 to 17 participate in the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows regular physical activity in children and adolescents may help build stronger bones, control weight and decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. There’s also a strong mental health connection, as exercise may help lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety.
With the newly renovated fitness space, more than 2,000 students and dozens of faculty and staff will have the opportunity to engage in regular physical activity in a safe environment. Mu Tha said she is grateful for the transformation and looks forward to no longer having to train with old and broken equipment.
“It feels good to have an open space to come and work out,” she said. “I’m just excited to go in there and use it.”