FCB Canada Explores Fitness as a Key to Cognition for People With Down Syndrome

Agency initiates global eight-week study

Chris Nikic, who last year became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon, fronts a new initiative that posits physical fitness as a key to better cognitive function.

Nikic—who swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and then ran a full marathon, all in less than 17 hours—appears in a three-minute video and related clips from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and FCB Canada. Today, that team launches a study probing the connection between exercise and mental facility to dispel misconceptions about what people with Down's can achieve.

"As Chris was training for the Ironman, we started to see incredible progress in his cognition," recalls Chris's father, Nik Nikic. "His memory improved, his social skills, and everyday tasks that he used to have problems with became much easier for him. His confidence has gone up, too. The impact has been incredible."

Developed with Anglia Ruskin University and Posit Science, a maker of brain-training programs, the "Mindsets" project probes the link between physical and mental fitness for people with Down syndrome. The concept stemmed from anecdotal evidence in the community that regular exercise helps people with the genetic condition improve their cognitive function.

Now, a global eight-week study of 200 participants will examine the impact of physical and brain exercises via a custom Mindsets app. Ultimately, the team will publish its findings and hopes to work toward making exercise an integral part of Down syndrome therapies.
"We see 'Mindsets' as an evolution of the five-year journey we've been on with the CDSS," FCB Canada creative chief Nancy Crimi-Lamanna tells Muse. "We have a long history of tackling specific challenges that face the community. More than driving awareness, our work creates real and meaningful solutions and partnerships that live long past any one campaign."

Such lauded efforts include "Down Syndrome Answers," which addressed ingrained neurotypical bias, while "Anything But Sorry" explained that folks with Down's have nothing to apologize for. "Project Understood" from 2019 endeavored to tweak Google's voice-recognition platform to improve everyday lives of those with Down syndrome.

"Mindsets" follows World Down Syndrome Day on Sunday, which generated various forms of global outreach, including this song from Sting calling for workplace inclusivity.

Below, Crimi-Lamanna discusses the effort in more detail.

Muse: This feels like a big change from your past CDSS efforts. Why go in this direction?

Nancy Crimi-Lamana: The difference this year was that FCB, an ad agency, came up with the concept of a research study, which doesn't happen every day, but it was the only way to prove our hypothesis and solve for the problem.
We decided early on to tackle fitness as the focus of this year's brief, and we were in concept development when we saw the story of Chris Nikic. It led us to wonder if this incredible story could have farther-reaching implications and be proven throughout the community. We realized that a study of this magnitude had never been done, and that's when we and our partners got excited. Not only is it ground-breaking, but it has the power to create true and lasting change.

And right now, vigorous workouts are often discouraged in the community, owing to fears about injury and other health concerns, correct?

Exercise is not a part of most prescribed therapies to increase both physical and cognitive fitness. Our hope is to scientifically prove these benefits and bring awareness of our findings to both the Down's community and medical professionals who serve them.

How are you targeting the message?

There are several target audiences. The first is obviously the Down syndrome community and their families. Not only do we need them as participants in the study, but we are hoping to highlight the benefits that increased physical activity will have on both their physical and cognitive health. Doctors and other caregivers are another important target. While some medical professionals prescribe physical activity, there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to prove its effects. We want to make them aware of the power of exercise and encourage them to make it an integral part of their therapy recommendations. Finally, the scientific community will benefit from the research, which will hopefully lead to future studies.

Can you explain how the study will work?

It will include approximately 200 participants from around the world over the course of eight weeks. We can't say anything further [about the mechanics of the process] at this time to preserve the integrity of the study and validity of the findings.

Aren't there already surveys showing similar results?

Most existing studies were focused on individuals with intellectual disabilities more broadly speaking. "Mindsets" represents a more comprehensive approach that focuses on cognitive benefits alone. To that end, existing evidence hasn't been replicated enough to actually change perceptions of parents, doctors or the community. The little research that has been done largely stays within academia, rather than creating mass awareness. We're focused on large-scale change: an undeniable set of data that reaches parents, doctors and other stakeholders, so they have the right knowledge to inform decisions. We hope this will scientifically prove the benefits of increased fitness on the cognition of the Down syndrome community. This will empower the community to pursue and even advocate for physical fitness to become a more significant aspect of their prescribed therapies.


Client: Canadian Down Syndrome Society
Chair: Ed Casagrande
Interim Executive Director: Laura LaChance
Marketing & Communications Manager: Kristen Halpen
Board Member: Ben Tarr

Anglia Ruskin University
Posit Science/BrainHQ

Creative Agency: FCB Canada
Chief Creative Officer: Nancy Crimi-Lamanna
Chief Creative Officer: Jeff Hilts
Executive Creative Director: Andrew MacPhee
Associate Creative Director: Michael Morelli
Associate Creative Director: Marty Hoefkes
Copywriter: Jon Dawe
Art Director: Jerry Yang
Chief Strategy Officer: Shelley Brown
Director of Strategy: Eryn LeMesurier
Strategy Coordinator: Audrey Zink
VP, Managing Director: Tim Welsh
Group Account Director: Blake Connolly
Account Supervisor: Ilaria Ragno
Agency Producer: Adriana Laborde
Project Manager: Cori Pettit
Production Artist: Douglas Hayter
Senior Production Artist: Jesse Reid-Smith
Proofreader: Jayne Heaton
Production Artist: Dominic Pimpare

PR: Glossy
Shannon Stephaniuk

Production Company: Fuelcontent
Director: Scott Drucker
Director of Photography: Scott Drucker
Camera Operator: Scott Drucker & Chet Tilokani
Photographer: Chet Tilokani

Editing House: Radar  
Editor: Jon Garofalo

Audio House: Grayson Matthews
Audio Producer: Kelly McCluskey
Director: Mark Domitric
Engineer: Brian Bernard
Music Supervisor: Rich Hamilton

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