Before joining Fitness for Health in Rockville, Md., the last time that Locla Byron, 70, had walked up a flight of stairs without holding on to the railing was when she was six years old.
Byron was born with cerebral palsy, a general term for a set of neurological disorders that severely impair muscle function, and, so, throughout her life, she’d struggle to do simple things that most take for granted - things like maintaining good balance.
Then, through her doctor, she heard about Fitness for Health, a fitness center that works exclusively with people with disabilities.
Six months into her training at the facility, s regimen that involved a variety of exercises, games, and equipment adapted specifically for the handicapped, Byron walked up a flight of stairs without the support of a railing - for the first time in 64 years!
“It’s been a remarkable experience,” says Byron. She began the process skeptical and afraid. “When I first came in, and the staff were going over some of the activities they wanted me to do, I thought, ‘You’re insane. I can’t do that.’”
Fortunately, Byron was wrong. She still attends Fitness for Health three times a week, paying per session. “It’s not exactly cheap,” she says, but argues you can’t put a price on getting back your life.
The catalyst behind Byron’s remarkable transformation, and for those of all Fitness for Health’s members, is Marc Sickel, 53, the facility’s owner and founder. Inspired by his personal struggles with physical limitations as a child, Sickel founded the business in 1986 to help children overcome their own physical, emotional, or neurological disabilities. Fitness for Health has since expanded its offerings to everyone, and now also addresses senior wellness, bone and joint health, and athletic performance development.
Sickel uses his innate understanding of the emotional roadblocks that prevent individuals with special needs from being physically active to design programs and activities that rip down those obstacles, replacing them with confidence and strong self-esteem.
“I understand how these people feel,” he explains. “I know what’s going through their minds. I even say to them that I know this is the last place they want to be. I say, ‘I don’t blame you, just bear with me.’
The forefront of fitness
Fitness for Health is at the forefront of the emerging inclusive fitness (sometimes called adaptive fitness) movement, an effort to create and provide exercise facilities, equipment, and programs tailored to individuals with special needs. Chris Garcia, a trainer at Fitness for Health, says that the facility works with people with a range of special needs and disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, ADD/ADHD, Down Syndrome, poor gross motor skills, and many other conditions.
Garcia notes that a large portion of his clients fall on the autism spectrum, due to the relatively recent increase in occurrences of the disease.
The facility has state-of-the-art exercise equipment, much of which Sickel worked directly with manufacturers to produce. Units have been modified, for example, to accommodate visual perception training, sensory and motor integration, and progress feedback. Meanwhile, for its younger clientele, Fitness for Health has a glow-in-the- dark rock wall, a giant ball pit, a laser room, and trampoline.
“The purpose of all the fancy equipment and high- tech games is to facilitate activities that are so much fun that clients forget they’re actually doing the work they thought they couldn’t do,” says Sickel.
Garcia reports that one machine that’s used a lot is the Makoto, a set of three towers that flash different colors and sounds at various intervals; the user has to tap the light or sound source with their hand or foot as quickly as possible. The machine helps improve visual scanning, reaction time, and muscle accuracy. A number of studies have shown that it’s very effective at training the body and mind.
Most major industry manufacturers offer inclusive exercise equipment, but Sickel also has worked with specialty suppliers such as Makoto USA, TRAQ 3D, TRAZER Interactive, and XerGames. He conferred with the latter to modify its Sportwall machine to make it more appropriate for his clientele.
The facility also utilizes everyday activities, such as basketball or badminton. A client, for example, may begin by using an oversized racquet, making it easier to hit the birdies, and once their accuracy improves, will graduate to a smaller racquet. They continue to receive ever-smaller racquets until they can use a regulation-sized one.
Garcia adds that both kids and adults love the trampoline, another commonplace item. “You can do so much with it, and, for adults, it makes them feel like a kid again,” he says. “It has a 30-foot tumble track, and offers the client a lot of feedback and input in a very natural, organic way.”
Most of Sickel’s ideas for new equipment are born at IHRSA’s annual convention and trade show. “I walk around the show floor with a different eye,” he acknowledges. “I look at a piece of equipment and ask, ‘How could that be utilized for my purposes?’” Sickel also asks exhibitors about their hottest piece of technology, and inquires about possible modifications.
When it comes to staff, Garcia explains, all of the facility’s trainers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or a related field. Many of them also hold a master’s degree in occupational or physical therapy, and have extensive experience working with individuals with special needs.
An industry-wide initiative
Like many clubs and equipment manufacturers, a number of educational and certifying organizations are now beginning to embrace inclusive fitness, expanding their offerings to encompass specialized curriculums.
For example, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) now offers a specialty certification developed in concert with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD). “The Inclusive Fitness Trainer Certification was launched in 2008, and has been well accepted,” says Amy Rauworth, the director of policy and public affairs for NCHPAD. “We believe that inclusiveness is about transforming communities based on social justice principles, so that everyone has access to and can take full advantage of opportunities for healthy choices.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of American universities are introducing inclusive fitness into their curriculums. For instance, Long Island University, in Brooklyn, New York, offers an inclusive fitness minor for a total of 12 credit hours.
Clearly, the fitness industry is trending toward inclusive fitness - with good reason. There’s a growing need for it, Sickel attests, both for kids and adults. “Adults can have a hard time obtaining services for their conditions, or they may want a different kind of treatment - one that’s engaging and more fun.”
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study reporting that half of America’s 21 million disabled adults don’t exercise regularly ... or at all. Worse, the 47% of adults with disabilities who are able to engage in aerobic exercise don’t.
The need for innovative exercise options for children with special needs or neurotypical conditions is even more serious, argues Sickel. “Two-thirds of the children in the U.S. are overweight or obese,” he points out. “I think a large number of them, at some point, were given the ammunition to say, ‘Never again’ to exercise. We just can’t have that!”
The need for inclusive fitness is increasing outside of the U.S., as well. Last year, IHRSA partnered with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization on the European Fitness Inclusion Training for Work project. This initiative teaches club operators and personal trainers how to work successfully with disabled people. The project, initiated in Ireland, is scheduled to last two years, and is budgeted at $500,000.
“The goal of the project is to instill more confidence in club staff and personal trainers when it comes to working with people with disabilities,” explains Joe Moore, the president and CEO of IHRSA. “This is an important, relatively untapped market for club operators to reach out to. I’m hopeful about what the UNESCO project will achieve in the U.K., and look forward to seeing similar efforts materialize in the U.S.”
Fitness professionals who provide inclusive options are already making important headway, helping individuals to take small steps and implement minor changes, which, for those with disabilities, represent major improvements. “I’ve come to realize how much the little things mean,” concludes Sickel. “We tend not to notice, to appreciate, so many ordinary activities, like walking down the street or climbing into or out of a car. Being able to do these things means the world to my clients.”
Garcia echoes Sickel: “Every day here is rewarding,” he says. “Kids and adults leave here smiling and confident, having done things inside our facility that they haven’t been able to do outside. That’s just incredible!”
Lilly Prince can be reached at email@example.com.