The Equitable Sport & Physical Activity Innovations (ESPI) Lab

Program Focus

Our goal is to get more young people involved in better sport and physical activity opportunities. Our lab is unique because we combine interdisciplinary research expertise with extensive applied experiences in sport, physical activity, and youth development settings.

Our ongoing projects focus on:
  • Investigating and addressing barriers to equitable access to sports and physical activity participation for diverse young people
  • Studying the health benefits that sport and physical activity facilitate
  • Creating and evaluating programs using physical activity to support development and health equity

Current Projects

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Move + Thrive

Move + Thrive is a free online physical activity video library, created with and for young people. These videos are developmentally appropriate and free from potentially harmful fitness triggers, such as body shaming and diet product promotions. We believe movement should feel good, support emotional and physical health, and be a safe space for all youth.

View the Move + Thrive Program

Physical Activity-Based Positive Youth Development Program for TGD Youth

There is a need for effective interventions to synergistically promote transgender and gender diverse (TGD) adolescents’ mental health and physical activity: TGD adolescents bear disproportionate health burdens in both areas. We have created a unique partnership—between our lab and Children’s Minnesota’s Gender Health Program—to develop and assess the feasibility, acceptability, and appropriateness of a physical activity-based positive youth development program for TGD adolescents. The program will focus on increasing physical activity skills and behaviors, as well as social support, to improve mental health. As first steps, we are gathering input on the program from TGD adolescents, their parents, and healthcare professionals, whose insights on physical activity and mental health are missing from research.

Co-Principal Investigators: Sarah M. Kaja, PhD & Kathleen K. Miller, MD

Team Sport Participation, Physical Activity, & Mental Health Among TGD Adolescents

Research shows that participating in sport and physical activity has positive effects on young people’s mental health. However, this research has relied on mostly cisgender samples of youth; the impacts of sport and physical activity in the lives of transgender and gender diverse (TGD) adolescents, specifically, are understudied. Descriptive research has not tracked TGD youths’ participation in sport over time, and it is unclear whether participating in sport and PA has the same benefits for TGD teens as for teens in general. We are closing these research gaps by 1) evaluating trends in TGD adolescents’ sport and PA participation from 2016 to 2019 to 2022, 2) exploring relationships between sport, PA, and mental health concerns among TGD youth, and 3) studying how team sport participation impacts the lives and mental health of TGD adolescents.

Principal Investigator: Sarah M. Kaja, PhD
Co-Investigator: Jenifer K. McGuire, PhD

Related publications:

Increasing Equity in Climate-Dependent Sports: Nordic Skiing

Atypical weather conditions impact Nordic (cross country) skiing. In the 2023-2024 ski season, temperatures were warm and snowfall totals were low in the Upper Midwest. We are studying how weather-related challenges affected youth Nordic ski teams, as well as strategies coaches used to help youth learn to ski, train, and compete despite disruptions. We are especially interested in how Nordic teams with fewer resources experience atypical conditions: poor weather may be especially limiting for youth who already have unequal access to Nordic. Results will include methods coaches can use to facilitate successful seasons in low-snow winters. Results will also inform how organizations and funders can better support coaches and teams, making sure that every young person who wants to ski has the chance.

Research Lab Staff
Samantha Adler headshot

Samantha Adler
Research Professional, Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health

Sam received her bachelor's degree in Kinesiology, and her master's degree in Sport & Exercise Psychology. She has experience as a personal trainer, youth swim instructor, graduate mental performance consultant, community mental health worker, and instructor for undergraduate exercise psychology courses. 

Sam's research interests revolve around improving sport and physical activity experiences for young people, targeting increased accessibility and enhanced self-perceptions (e.g., body image, physical competency). She focuses on the influence of intersectionality and sociocultural contexts among underrepresented youth, highlighting the importance of: disaggregating physical activity data across ethnic communities; understanding adolescent athletes' body ideals and related emotions/behaviors; incorporating stakeholder insights to improve sport and movement in diverse populations. 

MS, Springfield College, Springfield, MA
BS, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Amy Gower headshot

Amy Gower, PhD
Research Associate

Katherine Pierson headshot

Katie Pierson, MA
Communications Manager

Peter de Ruiter headshot

Peter de Ruiter
Undergraduate Research Assistant

Peter is a senior at the University of Minnesota, a computer science major, and Co-President of the University's Nordic Ski Club. Additionally, he has over 4 years of experience coaching youth sports. With the ESPI Lab, Peter is managing and analyzing data from our study with Nordic ski coaches.