Connections Newsletter
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Ken Sparks: Distinguished Faculty Award Winner

It is 7 a.m. and while most of the world reaches for the snooze button, Dr. Ken Sparks, associate professor in the Health and Human Performance (HHP) department, is tucked away in the Human Performance Lab (HPL) busy analyzing health assessment data for the Fitness for Life program. Sparks early-bird arrival to campus is not an unusual occurrence. As coordinator of the employee wellness program, he often logs early morning hours and volunteers personal time to support the fitness goals of faculty and staff participants.

I come in early, around 7 a.m. and on days I teach, I leave at 9 p.m., says Sparks. But I do not ever feel like I have to go work because this is where I want to be. I really enjoy the students and people here at Cleveland State. For me, this is not work, I really love what I do.

The Fitness for Life program began in the mid-1970s under the leadership of Dr. James Klinzing, associate professor in HHP. Currently in its 38th year, the program continues to promote healthy lifestyles by offering participants individualized health and fitness assessments and certified personalized instruction during May through September each academic year.

Fitness for Life, which attracts more than 60 members each session, is a demanding undertaking. Sparks and his team of graduate assistants perform a full battery of tests on participants, including blood analyses, stress tests and EKGs. They also provide participants supervised exercise sessions three times per week and monthly classes on fitness topics like weight and stress management.

For his dedication to programs like Fitness for Life, his leadership in community Research and Development projects and his infectious positivity, Sparks has been recognized as the recipient of the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award for Service.

Under Sparks leadership, the Fitness for Life program has grown significantly. After assuming the role of coordinator in 1998, Sparks collaborated with Vida Lock, now dean of the School of Nursing, to seek funding for updating physiological testing and data reporting technologies. Sparks also actively recruited additional graduate assistants to accommodate more participants. Since then, the number of university participants has doubled and testing time has been reduced from one hour to 30 minutes, says Sparks.

Fitness for Life is a fun program to oversee, says Sparks. We benefit as much as the participants because we get to know people and graduate assistants become more proficient by learning about testing procedures.

An advocate of fitness and health prevention, Sparks says witnessing friends and colleagues reduce risk factors is the most enriching aspect of his involvement in the program.

I have worked with people who had a lot of health problems when we initially met them, says Sparks. Now I see them running in triathlons and marathons. I have had people tell me that if it had not been for the program they may not be here because they were headed down the wrong path.

Dr. Sheila Patterson, department chair of HHP, feels Sparks far-reaching impact on the health and wellness of participants cannot be measured.

In a nomination packet to the awards committee, Patterson wrote: To help motivate a person to find a better health and fitness practice, or to find a major health issue is an experience that cannot be quantified.

Sparks remains humble about his positive influence on Fitness for Life members.

The participants did it, not me, he says. We are not coaches trying to make athletes out of anyone. We are just trying to make people more aware of their physical conditions, and hopefully, they willl take advantage of the program.

When he isnot motivating Fitness for Life members or engaging students in his physical education courses, Sparks can be found in the high-tech HPL where he and a team of graduate assistants conduct testing for local and national Research and Development firms. Sparks is currently collaborating with 6 companies, including Cleveland-based Orbital Research, to provide physiological metrics in athletic, medical and military-based testing.

In one of four projects with Orbital, the HPL team is investigating the physical state of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, Air Force F-22 pilots experience at high altitudes. The team tested the physiology of volunteers under conditions simulating an altitude of 25,000 feet. The data provided to Orbital resulted in the development of a monitoring sensor embedded in pilots face masks to measure physiological changes. Sparks and his team will continue to test the reliability of the censor in monitoring the onset of hypoxia.

The HPL, which now is equipped to analyze all blood tests in-house, also allows Sparks and his team to conduct testing for local community members. Organizations like the YMCA have sought Sparks expertise in testing and analysis for more than 600 participants.

Even with a dossier that highlights more than 30 years of dedicated service, groundbreaking research and professional teaching and advising, Sparks has no plans to scale back his demanding workload..

I keep thinking maybe in a couple more years I will retire, but maybe not even then because I really enjoy what I do, says Sparks. The best thing about Fitness for Life from my standpoint is meeting everybody , deans, associate deans, staff members , from across campus. It is really nice to know university members who I normally would not get to meet.