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It’s Time for Equal Workout Opportunities for All Abilities
Everyone deserves a chance to exercise safely, but for some people, getting their sweat on is anything but given.
Think back to the last time you went to your favorite gym or studio. Imagine entering the building and perhaps jogging up a flight of stairs in your cross-training sneakers. Picture grabbing a towel, navigating the equipment and climbing onto the machine you want to use. Now, ask yourself: Would you have been able to do all this in a wheelchair?
As the fitness industry works on building inclusiveness, there’s a major population still fighting for their right to sweat: Adaptive athletes, or people who have physical limitations that require modifications in order to participate in workouts or sports, are often overlooked. It’s not something many people think about, but it’s critical in building a truly inclusive fitness environment. The first step: Understanding what studios and fellow gym-goers can do to push for a workout environment that’s set up so everyone can enjoy it.
Why Exercise Is Key
It goes without saying that exercise benefits all human beings, regardless of their mobility or ability. But it might benefit adaptive athletes more than most: People with a disability are three times more likely than the rest of the population to develop diseases of sedentary lifestyle like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, says Melinda Earnest, a physical therapist in Cincinnati and co-founder of The Bridge Adaptive Sports and Recreation.
Just as importantly, people with disabilities find that sports and recreation improve their psychological health (even beyond the typical mental health benefits of exercise, like easing anxiety and raising confidence). “There are tons of benefits to sport and recreation for people with disabilities—finding community, improving health, quality of life and functional mobility—and even an increased likelihood of employment,” Earnest says.
Plus, having a dedicated gym to exercise in also helps adaptive athletes work on pushing their physical limitations, even after formal physical therapy ends. “I have patients with a variety of disabilities who finish formal rehabilitation and don’t know what to do next,” Earnest says. “Sports are not necessarily their thing but they still want to exercise.” Group fitness often helps them with that transition.
Breaking Down Barriers
Kiersten McCartney, a physical therapist and volunteer coach at her local CrossFit gym in Newark, DE, coaches adaptive athletes within able-bodied classes. She’s seen many adaptive athletes take on grueling CrossFit workouts, and she’s witnessed firsthand both the barriers and facilitators to participation. “Overall I find athletes with differing abilities have difficulty finding gyms that are open, accessible and willing to work with them on their fitness journey,” she says.
The equipment itself can be a hurdle. “Mainstream gyms usually only have free weights that athletes can use, or maybe an upper body ergometer,” says Earnest. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with other cardio equipment a seated athlete can use.”
To rectify that, suggests McCartney, gyms need to think about modifications that could be made to certain machines or exercises so both able-bodied and adaptive athletes can use them. “For example: a seated athlete cannot do ‘double unders,’ but there are plenty of drills they can do in their chair around a box,” she says. “These drills will get their heart rate up just like a double under would.” Safety is key, too, she adds. “If someone has a balance impairment but is able to stand for certain movements, can [the gym] place a box behind them so if they are to fall, there is a safety measure in place?”
Equipment modification is essential, but so is attitude. The more included a gym makes all of its members feel, the more likely its members are to keep returning. “Generating a welcoming environment is a huge step,” McCartney says. “Incorporate adaptive athletes within a class, do not separate them to a different part of the gym. Welcome them in the same way you would welcome an able-bodied athlete.”
That tip applies to trainers, too. “Trainers and coaches may be understandably nervous if they have never worked with an adaptive athlete before,” says McCartney. “That's okay, but don’t let it stop you from reaching out and helping.”
Earnest adds, “Just like any client, getting to know them is important. What are their goals? What do they want to improve on? Part of this is also about asking what language they are comfortable with because it can differ person-to-person.”
As a regular gym-goer, you can do your own part to make people with physical challenges feel welcome. The next time you see an adaptive athlete in your workout class or on a weight machine next to yours, introduce yourself. (Ice-breaker tip: Compliment their super-trendy leggings.)
Harnessing the Power of Technology
While making gyms fully inclusive is still a work in progress, there are plenty of workout apps leading the charge. McCartney and Earnest both recommend Move United—a national leader in adaptive sports program support that offers a directory for searching for adaptive sports in your area.
For other online resources, Wheel WOD houses CrossFit workouts and movement adaptations for athletes and Adaptive Training Academy has great functional fitness resources for coaches and athletes.
On the equipment side, Earnest works with Equip Products for adaptive equipment like lap pads, split ropes and single-arm rowing attachments. Reconceiving a workout space for adaptive athletes take a little effort, she concedes, but at the end of the day the fitness industry should think of adaptive fitness as an opportunity.
“The fitness industry is in the position to take the lead in creating a more inclusive world, especially for people with disabilities who are often forgotten when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion,” she says. “Exercise is important for everyone. If we encourage an inclusive community in our gyms, I believe people will naturally start to think about accessibility within other areas of their life, from restaurants to restrooms, classrooms and boardrooms.”