Implementing Fitness Programs for People with Disabilities

Can your health club be more inclusive? Learn four key strategies from experts at leading clubs that serve members with disabilities.

At the heart of every health club business lies the desire to help people. It’s ingrained into each one of your business models, services, and daily operations—whether you’re aware of it or not.

This defining factor allows each club operator to provide welcoming environments for all kinds of people. It also positions you to create specialized routines that bring exercise and healthy habits to everyone who walks through your doors—including long-time fitness enthusiasts, first-time exercisers, and even those seeking opportunities to manage disabilities and take control of their wellbeing.

As we learn more about the prevalence of chronic conditions and disabilities, many fitness businesses are bringing access to exercise and healthy habits to special populations to help affected individuals better manage their health.

Various club owners and staff members have already begun implementing programs to service members with disabilities. Mike Alpert, president of the Claremont Club, Amanda Brown, youth director at Newton Athletic Club (NAC), and Mark Cuatt, R.D., EP-C, and general manager at Club Fit, spoke about their personal experiences and advice for running effective programs to IHRSA 2018 attendees during their panel, “All Inclusive: Implementing Programs for People with Disabilities.” Here are some of their most valuable tips for newcomers to this programming arena.

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A member with disabilities working out with staff at the Claremont Club

1. Define Your Population

When asked about the biggest challenge her club faced when designing a program for people with disabilities, Amanda Brown said that defining “disability” and deciding which disabled population to focus on was at the top of NAC’s priority list.

During the IHRSA 2018 session, Brown tasked attendees with finding answers to these two questions:

  • Do you already have a lot of one population in your club?
  • What kinds of programs can/should you be offering them?

“Pick the population you're going to go after,” Alpert added. “Start small and make them really good and move on. Have some good connections with people and organizations and get out on the diving board and take a jump.”

“Make sure that your staff is treating everyone the same—that all-inclusivity must be seamless.”

Mark Cuatt, R.D., EP-C, General Manager

Club Fit - New York

2. Build Trust and Make Adaptations

Just as you are taking a jump by deciding to launch a program for members with disabilities, your members are jumping at the same time by deciding to trust you.

“When different populations come into your club this is very personal,” said Brown. “Taking the potential new client into a separate space was good [for us] and allowed them to adapt.”

Staff members should be prepared to serve and accommodate these members the same as any other health club visitor or member.

“Make sure that your staff is treating everyone the same—that all-inclusivity must be seamless,” said Cuatt. “We did very deliberate training and weekly meetings with staff to see what was working and not working and where we needed to make changes. Making sure you are modeling the training and explaining how it should be delivered worked well.”

Equally important is finding an effective way to integrate existing members with members with disabilities. This approach will support your ultimate goal of treating all members similarly and making everyone feel comfortable working out in a safe, supportive space.

“We are accepting to everyone,” Brown reiterated. “The answer is always yes, and there is a ‘can do’ attitude from everyone on staff.”

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Youth programming at Club Fit

3. Partner with Like-minded Organizations

Though there are a lot of components to consider when starting one of these programs, the most important thing to remember is you do not have to go through the process of designing and then running a program alone.

There are various organizations whose mission is to serve the populations you are looking to bring into your club, and many are searching to partner with clubs like yours to assist these people better.

It’s necessary to “...do your homework and build relationships with people in this space,” said Alpert. “These people need to know you, like you, and trust you...For years, we got close with hospitals and physicians, and then we kept hitting roadblocks. You have to have a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit, the right heart and soul, and the ability to get out on the diving board and take a jump.”

4. Start Small, Dream Big

If you’re unsure of where to start, Cuatt also suggests building connections with outside agencies and key staff members to identify a good program fit for your club and members. Once you’ve established which program is right for you, you can then communicate internally and externally about the program and its numerous benefits.

After all, one small idea that is successfully executed contributes to the larger dream of making physical activity accessible for everyone. As Alpert said, “It's time we put the word 'health' back in health club. We go after the fit population, but we should be going after the population that needs us the most and can afford us least. It touches and changes the lives of staff members, your members, and community members when you offer these kinds of programs.”

Author avatar

Shannon Vogler @vogler_shannon

Shannon Vogler is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for IHRSA. Shannon writes articles, press releases, and the IHRSA Advocate newsletter to make IHRSA members aware of policy issues that impact health clubs. She also speaks with media influencers about the benefits of working out and joining a gym. When she's not writing, Shannon enjoys running and cheering for the New England Patriots.