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Exercise Is for Everyone: Five ways to make sports and fitness more accessible to all

October 5th, 2015     by Denise Reich     Comments

Illustration by Erin McPhee

This summer I had the opportunity to attend the IDEA World Fitness Convention – or rather, the Expo associated with it – in Los Angeles. One of my goals was to search for companies and fitness programs who embraced adaptive exercise for those with disabilities.

Adaptive exercise covers a lot of ground and a lot of different circumstances. In brief, it’s about making fitness and sports accessible to all. For instance, that could mean providing modifications in a dance class for those with orthopedic issues, providing visual cues for the Deaf, leading low-impact or chair workouts, or designing exercise programs that are safe for those with certain medical conditions.

Disabled sports, also know as parasports, are on the rise. There are a number of sports organizations and major competition circuits for individuals with specific disabilities, such as the Special Olympics, Paralympics, Deaflympics and Disabled Sports USA. In addition, the need for exercise programs for disabled individuals is being addressed by programs such as Great Britain’s Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI). However, at a local level, it can still be very difficult for individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses to find exercise programs, sports and classes that work for them.

Hence, my quest at IDEA. I was very impressed with the fact that 99% of the representatives in the booths, both for nutrition and fitness companies, spoke with me respectfully and knowledgeably. That’s a direct contrast to what has happened to me at various running expos, where I tend to be completely ignored due to my size. Even more heartening: every single business with whom I spoke fully respected and supported Health at Every Size and fat athletes, as well as fitness for the disabled and chronically ill. Most said that they were interested in making their programs more inclusive.

Less encouraging: less than five companies currently had ways to modify their programs or classes for the disabled.

What helps foster inclusion in exercise? It’s a big question. Here are some suggestions.

1. Make gyms, pools and exercise classes safe spaces for all.

One of my relatives, who has a heart condition, was harassed by other women at her local gym because she was going slowly on a treadmill. They heckled her because they wanted her to stop using the machine and let them have it. I’ve heard story after story about women and trans individuals, both able-bodied and disabled, who feel alienated by the way they’re treated when they’re just trying to work out.

If you Google “harassed at the gym” or “gymtimidation,” the search will yield thousands and thousands of articles, blogs and message board entries about the inhospitable environments at fitness facilities. When surveyed, a majority of women, and many men, have reported feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or harassed at the gym. Gymtimidation can take many forms, including being sexually harassed or objectified by others in the gym or locker room; being subjected to rude comments about weight, appearance or level of fitness, or being menaced or intimidated out of participating in classes or using certain pieces of gym equipment.

Instructors can be a part of this, too. When a teacher screams, insults, makes comments about weight and appearance, or otherwise interacts with their students in a negative way, they’re contributing to a climate of intimidation. There’s a difference between being a tough coach and being a bully, and unfortunately many seem to cross the line with it.

Hostile environments affect everyone, regardless of age, weight, gender or disability, and it certainly doesn’t make it any easier for individuals in need of adaptive exercise, or proponents of HAES, to get their workouts in. It’s up to gyms, fitness facilities, dance studios, pools and other exercise centers to address this and continue to create zero-tolerance policies for harassment, bullying and intimidation, both on the workout floor and in the locker room.

2. Separate exercise from weight loss.

There are myriad quantifiable benefits from regular physical activity. Studies have shown that exercise can have very positive effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, can strengthen muscles and bones, and might even aid in maintaining and improving cognitive function. It’s often part of rehabilitation programs and treatment protocols for medical issues ranging from cancer to fibromyalgia to heart attacks to PTSD. Exercise can give you a burst of endorphins and make you feel good. It might help you develop self-confidence, expand your social circle, reduce stress and learn new skills. And every single one of those benefits is possible regardless if a person is thin or heavy.

However, even respected medical websites and literature usually cite weight loss as the primary benefit of exercise. Many gyms and fitness programs follow suit. On workout videos the instructors sometimes cheerfully tell you how many calories you’re burning. Curves gyms, for example, purport to welcome women of all sizes and fitness levels, but participants are weighed, measured and given meal plans. The chain has recently partnered with Jillian Michaels from the extreme weight loss show “The Biggest Loser,” which hammers that point home.

Equating fitness with weight loss, first and foremost, can easily alienate participants – especially those who are heckled about their size outside of the gym, have disabilities or illness that have impacted their weight or metabolism, or have dealt with eating disorders. A person who walks into a gym may or may not be there to lose weight, and that shouldn’t be taken as the default expectation or goal. There are so many other things that exercise can do for a person…why not play up some of those amazing benefits instead?

3. Make adjustments and modifications normal parts of class.

Fitness guru Jane Fonda might be infamous for telling people to “feel the burn,” but many of her workout programs are actually shining examples of inclusiveness. Most of her videos from the mid- 1980s to the mid-1990s have participants of many ages. There are typically two instructors on screen at the same time: one who performs high intensity aerobics, and another right beside her, who does a low-impact version of the same choreography. During strength training and stretching portions of the workouts, various modifications are shown. These aren’t afterthoughts, either: some segments are only low-impact, the students in the class perform at different levels, and Jane herself sometimes does the modified exercises. She actually reminds people to stop or slow down if they’re tired. In one of Jane’s videos, numerous songs are led by a visibly pregnant woman. In another, there’s a participant who messes up almost every move but keeps going.

Some of Leslie Sansone’s walking videos have a similar setup, with participants of varying sizes and ages doing the same workout in different ways. The message is clear: fitness is for everyone, and there are several valid ways to participate in a class.

In an in-person class, it’s a challenge to have several instructors. However, when a teacher makes a point of demonstrating different ways to perform exercises and presents modifications as valid options, instead of last resorts, it makes the classes far more accessible. Recognizing and respecting that students within the same class may have different needs and abilities is important. In addition, when those of varying needs and skill levels can take class or work out together, it fosters inclusion.

4. Realize that “adaptive” is not a synonym for “beginner.”

Someone in my family has been looking for an organized fitness class. When we talked about it, I suggested that she should check out her local senior center. She wasn’t keen on the idea, and told me, “I’d like something that’s a little harder than ‘follow the leader.’” She is having trouble finding a class that will be challenging enough for her, while sensitive to her age and health-related concerns.

There’s a pervasive misconception that adaptive exercise is “easy,” or that all participants are beginners. It’s just not true. There are disabled athletes and exercise fans at all skill and experience levels. Beginner classes and programs are just as important in adaptive fitness as they are anywhere else – but when that’s all that is offered, it’s a problem. A disabled, ill or elderly individual who is stuck in a beginner class when they’re able to perform at a more advanced level may become bored, frustrated and reluctant to continue.

5. Improve access, both financially and logistically.

Exercising can be costly, with some gyms charging four figures just for initiation fees. This isn’t feasible for a lot of people. It’s definitely out of reach for many with disabilities or chronic illness, who may be on fixed incomes and spending most of it on healthcare expenses.

There’s been a recent push to offer free or low-cost exercise programs in many North American cities. Many parks have installed free fitness circuits and equipment. There are walking, dancing and running meet-up social groups. Community festivals offer free Zumba and yoga classes. Programs like CitiBike in New York City allow individuals to rent bicycles inexpensively for short periods of time. Some cities have low-cost municipal recreation centres and classes. In addition, many fitness and dance classes are offered on a drop-in basis so participants can pay as they go, without being saddled with an expensive financial commitment up front.

These are great steps. It would, however, be nice to see more of these initiatives specifically focused on adaptive exercise. It’s hard to find adaptive or low-impact classes at all many areas. They’re just not on the schedule. In addition, when adaptive programs are offered, they’re sometimes inaccessible to the general public. A friend of mine teaches a great chair workout, but it’s only offered to residents at a senior living facility. When adaptive classes are available to the public, they’re often during the day, which makes it hard for the working disabled to get to them.

Fitness isn’t just for able-bodied individuals. The joy of physical activity should be accessible to all. Hopefully, based on the conversations I had at IDEA, more exercise companies are working to make that a reality.

Tags: body politics, disability

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