Over the past two weeks, 92 students from Brigham Young University donated 4,600 hours to conduct more than 2,500 health screenings on senior athletes from 30 countries and every state in America.
Each year, more than 11,000 senior athletes converge in Utah to participate in the Huntsman World Senior Games, an annual international athletic competition for men and women age 50 and up. For more than 30 years, senior athletes competing in the games have found themselves in the capable hands of student volunteers from BYU.
The volunteering tradition began with Dr. Steven Hiener, a professor of health sciences at BYU who was a founding board member of the Huntsman World Senior Games. He believed the games would be a positive experience for participants and offer students a healthy example of active aging.
When Hiener first started offering basic health screenings, students met with athletes as they progressed through three small hotel rooms. As the games grew in popularity and quality, the health screenings did too. Now, they fill up half a convention center and offer everything from blood pressure and carotid artery screening to balance and cognitive wellness. The screenings detect serious health threats like glaucoma, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, decreased bone density and breast or prostate cancer.
The results are profound and potentially lifesaving.
Ron Hager, an associate professor in the department of exercise sciences, took over for Heiner and has co-coordinated the health screenings with UVU nursing professor Gary Neeson for the past 16 years.
“I do it because the students have a fantastic experience ... their eyes are opened to what it means to be old and active as opposed to being old and in a nursing home,” he said. “It’s a wake-up call.”
In addition to the screenings, faculty and students routinely conduct research at the games and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals.
Brent Feland, an associate professor of exercise sciences and Huntsman’s 2018 golf silver-medalist, helps coordinate the health screenings. He and three BYU faculty members are researching how foot structure and function change based on physical activity at this year’s games.
“The games are an incredible opportunity to conduct research on older athletes,” he said. “For a previous research project, I got almost 4,000 people tested. We still use the data.”
Besides experience, BYU student volunteers can receive internship credit for their service.
BYU student volunteer Taryn Corey said, “I have loved working at the games. The coolest part of the experience for me has been seeing the things I learn in my classes actually be applied in real life. I felt like a true professional interacting with the athletes.”
Corey’s biggest takeaway?
“It is inspiring to see the geriatric community so passionate for staying healthy and in the best shape possible,” she said. “It made me realize that we have a future beyond college, and we choose how we want to spend it.”