Choosing a health and fitness club can be a daunting task for anyone. When selecting the right health or fitness club a number of issues need to be considered: cost, convenience, available services, and the hours it is open. Beyond these basic issues is the deeper need for a sense of belonging. Although fitness is a proven component of a healthy lifestyle, some people feel too intimidated to visit or join a club. The models shown in advertisements are enough to cast doubt on anyone’s comfort level.
The sense of belonging is paramount for individuals with special needs. Although there has been progress over the years, the inclusion of people with special needs has not been achieved in many sectors of society, including health and fitness clubs.
One day during a workout, this reporter was suddenly struck by the diversity of people surrounding her. Had she seen so many different types of people working out together before? As a former member of several clubs, this seemed a unique situation, hence, the idea for this article was thus born.
Northwest YMCA (NW YMCA)
To an observer, it could be confusing to watch a man who is obviously blind step onto a treadmill, select a program and then begin his workout. However, for one NW YMCA member, it is part of his weekly routine. When he joined NW YMCA, the man expressed a desire to use the cardio and strength training equipment independently. In keeping with the NW YMCA philosophy—to meet the social, recreational and fitness needs of the surrounding community—the fitness coordinator contacted the National Society for the Blind (NSB).
NSB produced Braille tape to place on the equipment and identify programming buttons and functions. When this didn’t work, the fitness coordinator tried placing pieces of plain tape beside the various programming buttons. The fitness staff then taught the man how to use the tape coupled with sound feedback (beeps) to select the various exercise programs. Whereas the Braille tape proved confusing, this method worked. Now this member can use the cardio and strength training equipment with the same independence as other NW YMCA members.
NW YMCA welcomes diversity at all fitness levels and needs. They make a practice of offering membership packages to group homes that serve clients with emotional, behavioral, and cognitive challenges. They also train the group home staff on the proper use of the exercise equipment.
This prepares the group home staff to assist and manage their clients through exercise routines. Depending on group home schedules, these members can be observed working out at different times and days of the week.
This policy of diversity and inclusion is communicated in the membership policies as well as the selection and hiring of staff. As the Fitness Coordinator, Piper said, “I make it clear to staff and potential staff that they will be working with different populations and needs. If they are not comfortable working with people with disabilities or special needs of any kind, they do not belong at NW YMCA.”
Several years ago, the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society requested an aquatics program for people with MS. Since the swimming pool is not designed with walk down pool entry, NW YMCA installed a chair lift for the pool. According to John Nies, the Aquatics Coordinator, MS aquatics classes are taught twice a week by NW YMCA fitness instructors. These instructors have a YMCA certification for water fitness instruction and additional certification for working with people with disabilities.
Some of the class participants exercise independently in the water, whereas others need the assistance of their personal care attendants (PCAs). In discussing the temperature needs of different groups, Piper indicated that lap swimmers and people with MS cannot tolerate the higher temperatures that are preferred by people with arthritis. Therefore, they maintain a midpoint temperature that is acceptable for everyone.
Some NW YMCA members maneuver through the strength-training area in wheelchairs. They may transfer onto the equipment independently or with the aid of a companion. According to Piper, the personal trainers also work individually with members who have Parkinson’s disease, MS, stroke, Fibromyalgia, and a host of other physical challenges.
NW YMCA also offers Active Older Adult (AOA) programs and a Silver Sneakers program. These classes are taught by instructors who are AOA certified. It is not uncommon to see older individuals or couples using the equipment or the upstairs track independently. People of all ages and fitness levels work out at NW YMCA.
NW YMCA also has volunteer opportunities for individuals and families, including those with disabilities. Some volunteers help fold towels in the morning. Other volunteers assist in the maintenance and upkeep of the club. Many of these volunteers come from various outside groups and organizations. It is an opportunity to socialize and contribute to the needs of the community. Volunteers help make it possible for NW YMCA to keep membership affordable. According to Voss, “No one is turned away because of financial limitations.”
In looking ahead, Voss discussed the changing demographics as people move in and out of the area. In keeping with these changes, the NW YMCA will be launching a capital campaign for family expansion and enhancements, including a new aquatics area.
NW YMCA also offers child care services. Members can leave their children in child care for up to two hours while working out. Summer camps and special activities for children and teenagers are additional services. For an additional cost, members can also take swimming lessons and personal training sessions. In terms of community fitness establishments, NW YMCA is an example of what is possible when diversity is the norm rather than the exception.
A special thank you goes to Greg Voss, the Northwest YMCA Executive Director, and Dan Piper, the Fitness Coordinator, for extending their time and assistance in bringing this article to fruition. With this example of what is possible, it is hoped that more individuals will dare to go forth and find a club where they and their families can enjoy the same benefits as others.