ALMA — Students and faculty from Alma College are working with city of Alma Public Safety department staff to provide cardiovascular health testing and exercise training, in order to reduce risk of adverse events and improve job performance.

A team of three members of the Class of 2024; Sarah Vanisacker, Brenden Coulter and Andrea Taghon, together with faculty advisor Alex Montoye, were rewarded for their efforts with a first-place finish in the Michigan Colleges Alliance’s 2024 Michigan Campus Community Challenge (MC-3). With the win, the students were collectively awarded a $10,000 scholarship.

“It was a pleasant surprise for our project to be selected for the top award in the MC-3 competition,” said Montoye, associate professor and chair of the Integrative Physiology and Health Science (IPHS) department at Alma College. “With this award, we hope to be able to expand our exercise training opportunities as we have seen substantial health and fitness benefits for individuals who regularly exercise train with our students. We’re glad to see this achieve the twin goals of providing high-impact educational experiences for Alma College students while simultaneously identifying and addressing a need in our community.”

The students’ project, titled “Exercise for Health and Safety,” is part of an ongoing collaboration between the city and college that has existed for several years. As part of the college’s IPHS course curriculum, students perform stress tests on city staff — including police and firefighters — in order to assess their cardiovascular function. In another class, students develop exercise plans for members of the local community and introduce them to fitness resources that are available at the college.

The students’ project will take those efforts one step further. For staff getting stress tests, students will lead the setup, test measures, protocol and help interpret their findings. For staff interested in exercise training, students will lead the employees through baseline and post-program fitness testing and developed individualized exercise plans to help staff meet their own health and wellness goals.

Mark Williams, director of public safety at the city of Alma, said that in 2022, an Alma firefighter suffered a non-lethal heart attack while fighting a fire. A stress test could have identified their underlying heart condition before the event occurred. With that experience behind the department, Williams is pleased to see them work with the students.

“Cardiac events are one of the leading causes of fatalities for firefighters. Our firefighters are paid on-call, so we don’t necessarily have the time or the resources to check for things like this independently,” Williams said. “That’s why an experience like this is so valuable. These students are literally saving lives through testing and research, and we appreciate it so much.”

According to Vanisacker, getting buy-in from the public safety staff is somewhat challenging, due to the high level of physical effort required for a stress test, and the challenges of aligning schedules between students and staff. However, roughly 20 percent of the staff of 60 eventually reported being interested in receiving exercise training from the students.

“I love the City of Alma and appreciate the work that their public safety department does for the community, so participating in this program was a no-brainer. It also aligned well with what I’d like to do in graduate school and as a future career, which was a huge bonus,” said Vanisacker, who will be pursuing a graduate degree in physical therapy from the University of Michigan-Flint beginning in the fall. “To be recognized as one of the top projects was very fulfilling, and the prize we received will be helpful as I continue my studies in this field.”