No-cost Strategies to Make Your Health Club More Inclusive

Physically active lifestyles are for everyone—learn how to open up your fitness facility to those with Intellectual Disabilities. IHRSA 2023 speakers discuss no-cost strategies for inclusive environments.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by Special Olympics and the IHRSA Foundation, people with Intellectual Disabilities (ID) who use gyms report doing so regularly, and improving their health and fitness is a key motivator. ID is a significant limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, which occurs in approximately 1-3% of the global population.

Among survey respondents who reported using the gym, 74% went at least twice per week, 51.3% two to three times, and 22.7% four or more times. Weight loss, training for a sport or race, and having fun were among the top five reasons for attending a gym. Equipment and amenities, strong social and community environments, and instructor support are top enablers for gym participation among people with ID.

Those with ID are an underserved population that wants to be physically active and join a community of like-minded peers. Justin Hunsinger, Special Olympics International health coordinator and Special Olympics Maryland athlete, is passionate about creating an inclusive health and fitness industry and living an active lifestyle.

“I feel like a million dollars after a workout. My brain is calm, happy, and relaxed. That’s what fitness means to me. It’s a stress reliever.”

Justin Hunsinger

Special Olympics International

As experts and passionate professionals, we couldn’t be happier to promote more inclusive environments in health clubs, gyms, and studios and provide easy, no-cost strategies. This March, we’re speaking at IHRSA 2023 to teach you how to:

  • serve people with intellectual disabilities in fitness,

  • engage family members and caregivers as supporters, and

  • build partnerships to increase inclusion.

Disadvantages & Challenges for Those With Intellectual Disabilities

People with ID experience worse health outcomes compared to people without ID. People with ID are two times more likely to be obese, have heart disease, five times more likely to have diabetes, and die 16 years earlier than their age related peers.

While it’s widely known that physical activity can decrease risks for obesity, heart disease, and all-cause mortality, only 1 in 10 people with ID meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for physical activity. Stated differently, people with ID are two to four times as likely not to meet physical activity guidelines compared to the general population.

People with ID experience some of the same challenges as people without ID, such as a lack of social support, but face additional challenges. Studies published in the National Library of Medicine and American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities site a lack of appropriate programming to meet their needs, poor access to inclusive fitness opportunities within their community, and inadequate access to health and fitness professionals equipped with the knowledge and confidence to meet the needs of people with ID.

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Notably, according to a UNESCO Chair study, 51% of fitness managers reported an increase in revenue after adopting strategies and policies to promote the inclusion of people with ID. Fitness professionals have an opportunity to both meet the needs of people with ID, improve their health outcomes, and to do so in a way that can support increases in customer diversity and loyalty.

A common misconception is that fostering environments to serve customers with ID will be cost-prohibitive to fitness organizations. IHRSA, in partnership with Special Olympics International, created a toolkit outlining best practices for expanding inclusion in fitness for people with ID.

Opportunities to Support Inclusive Environments for Those With Intellectual Disabilities

One of the six strategies developed by IHRSA includes providing adequate training to fitness professionals in working with people ID—86% of fitness professionals report inadequate training to meet the needs of people with disabilities. As such, Special Olympics, in partnership with the American Council on Exercise, developed the free 60-minute course Special Olympics Inclusive Fitness Training. Among the principles covered in this course are strategies for incorporating visual cues, effective communication, and appropriate fitness testing principles for people with intellectual disabilities.

An additional strategy to promote inclusion in fitness for people with ID is to include people with ID in fitness marketing and promotional materials. “One of the ways I promote inclusion in my work is to feature people with intellectual disabilities participating in fitness through social media and pictures. I want to show that people with ID are strong, capable of working out, and making healthy decisions for themselves,” said Logan Anderson, certified Inclusive Fitness trainer, Special Olympics Iowa weightlifting coach, and owner of All Strong Fitness, LLC. “By showing the abilities of people with ID in fitness through images and video, we can retrain society on what having a disability actually means.”

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By including people with ID in images, videos, and marketing materials, it sends the message that not only are people with ID welcome in such fitness spaces but challenges stereotypes and celebrates all abilities.

Join Us at IHRSA 2023 to Learn More No-cost Inclusive Strategies

To uncover more strategies, please join us at IHRSA 2023! On Monday, March 20, at 2:30 p.m., we will discuss more no-cost strategies, and how to engage caregivers and families of people with ID to foster fitness principles in the home or group home settings. Further, we will equip attendees with community-based strategies to expand the reach of your health club, gym, or fitness center in promoting physical activity for people with ID. This session will provide opportunities for you to network with like-minded fitness professionals looking to promote inclusion.

To get a head start, you can visit our free resources, including:

See you in San Diego!

Related Articles & Publications

  • Fitness Veterans Explain How Gyms Can Attract All Generations

  • The IHRSA Foundation 2021 Annual Report

  • canfitpro Supports Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Fitness

Melissa Otterbein & Monica Forquer

Melissa Otterbein is a Certified Health Educator Specialist and the Senior Manager, Fitness and Healthy Lifestyles at Special Olympics International. Her career began in HIV/AIDS research at Johns Hopkins University, and she earned a fellowship with Global Health Corps as Program Manager for The Grassroot Project. She earned her Master of Public Health in Physical Activity and a Graduate Teaching and Research Assistantship at George Washington University. She taught as Adjunct Professor in Towson University’s Department of Family Studies and Community Development and served as the Education Manager at USA Triathlon, where she secured a $600,000 Million Coaches Challenge grant award. She serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Emerging Sport Studies. A Certified USA Triathlon Level II and US Masters Swimming Certified Coach and competitive cyclist, she values sport’s ability to unite, and provide emotional health for all.

Monica Forquer is a Fitness Advisor for Special Olympics with 16 years of experience in health and fitness programming. She's the founder of Active Health LLC where she supports organizations with strategic development, resource creation, program implementation and evaluation. Monica is also a doctoral student (DrPH) at George Washington School of Public Health where she focuses her studies on physical activity programming for underserved populations. Prior to returning to school, Monica was on staff at Special Olympics where she led the development and implementation of the global fitness strategy from 2016-2021 and created resources and programming such as Fit 5 and Performance Stations. Monica has a master’s degree in Exercise Science from George Washington University, a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Western Michigan University, and has been a Certified Personal Trainer since 2005.