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Medical students in action: Alison Spurr and Kids’ Run Club

Before she’d even learned to walk herself, Dalhousie Medical School student Alison Spurr’s 11-month-old daughter helped dozens of kids learn to run.

During Ms. Spurr’s maternity leave, she and her daughter participated in a program called Roots of Empathy. Their visits to a Grade 1 class at Rockingstone Heights School in Spryfield, N.S., helped the students learn about feelings and empathy. But it was a learning experience for Ms. Spurr, too.

“We got to know some of the kids at Rockingstone and saw some of the challenges the school faces,” said Ms. Spurr. “It really got me thinking about the social determinants of health and healthy communities. I started trying to think of low-cost, high-impact ways we could get medical students involved in schools to encourage healthy behaviours. I kept coming back to physical activity.”

“Focusing on communities that traditionally draw on lower socioeconomic areas was also important, as these tend to be the kids that miss out on opportunities to play sports and be active.”

Ms. Spurr knew about Kids’ Run Club (KRC) through Doctors Nova Scotia. The free, school-based program began in 2004; in 2016, the program helped 17,500 students at 270 schools get up and running. The program makes physical fitness accessible for kids of all ages, from all backgrounds. It seemed like a perfect fit, so last spring, Ms. Spurr reached out to KRC coordinator Kerry Copeland.

“Initially, we talked about having Alison help out at one school but then the idea grew to include other med students,” said Ms. Copeland. “Thanks to her initiative and the enthusiasm of other med students, she was able to recruit a large group of students who were keen to be involved.”

Next, Ms. Spurr contacted the school administrators.

“The teachers at the schools and the parents in the communities are often so busy with other aspects of their jobs and lives that they don’t always have a lot of time to give to organize and supervise a program like the Kids Run Club,” said Ms. Spurr. “Once we approached the schools, they were so excited and welcoming. They gave us whatever support we needed.”

Her fellow medical school students were also enthusiastic.

“It was getting to be late in the school year to be asking fellow med students to add another volunteer commitment, but I was really impressed with how many students signed up,” said Ms. Spurr. “I thought maybe we would get three or four coaches, but to have 14 was really fantastic. It allowed us to work with the runners in smaller groups and get to know them that much better.”

The med student volunteers ended up running KRC at two elementary schools – Rockingstone Heights and Joseph Howe School, in Halifax; and supporting the program at Whitney Pier Middle School and Brookland Elementary School in Cape Breton. The programs had 45 runners in grades three to six.

“My favourite part of KRC is seeing the kids every week and seeing their excitement when it is time to run,” said Ms. Spurr. “Seeing the progress they have made is really rewarding, and so is hearing them talk about their goals, such as running so many laps, joining the track team or running the Youth Run at the Blue Nose.”

The rewards of trying something new and the idea that perseverance pays off are two of the lessons Ms. Spurr hopes the students will take away from their time with Kids’ Run Club. “We’ve already had children tell us that they used to only be able to run a block without getting winded and now they can run much farther without having to stop.

“I also hope they learn that running, and physical activity generally, is fun, accessible and beneficial – for both physical and mental health. We wanted to model healthy behaviour and show them that if you have a pair of shoes, you can get out and be active, and have fun doing it.”

Ms. Spurr, who has been running for physical fitness and stress relief ever since her days as an undergrad, said it wasn’t long before the teaching staff noticed a difference in their students. “The teachers at Rockingstone have been telling us that the kids are much more focused and calm for the remainder of the day after KRC practice.”

Kid’s Run Club can also help students make new social connections, said Ms. Spurr. “We noticed that Joseph Howe School had many children who had recently moved from Syria as refugees. We were able to recruit two more med student coaches who spoke Arabic so these kids could take part. They loved the experience, and it was great to see them included and able to make connections with the medical student translators.”

With luck, said Ms. Spurr, participating in KRC will make a long-lasting difference for the young runners.

“It is more important than ever to encourage children to get outside and be active. Kids are much more sedentary these days and that can play a role in some of the poor health outcomes we see later in life.”

Ms. Spurr will return from maternity leave to start her third year of medical school in September, and she’ll be back on the track with KRC next spring. “We’re hoping to increase the number of participants,” she said, and the season’s goal is already set: “The plan is to get as many of the kids as possible to the Doctors Nova Scotia Youth Run at the Scotiabank Blue Nose Marathon next May.”

Have your children participated in Kids’ Run Club? Share about their experience in the comment section below.

Kid’s Run Club is proudly sponsored by:

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