Working up a Sweat over Fitness
We all know exercise improves our hearts, stamina and reduces our waistlines, but for people with disabilities, the benefits of exercise are even greater. Secondary physical and mental conditions often improve; muscle tone becomes more balanced, especially for people in wheelchairs; and the physical capacity to live independently develops.
Yet exercise opportunities for people with disabilities remain slim, according to Paula Hart, CEO of the Courage Center, Golden Valley, Minn. The organization opened its second fitness center for people with disabilities Feb. 2. The 1,292-square-foot facility includes an Olympic-sized, warm-water pool accessible for people in wheelchairs; state-of-the-art fitness equipment; nutrition and weight-loss counseling; therapeutic massage; personal training; circuit training; and a hefty schedule of adaptive classes, including yoga, aerobics and Tai Chi. Hart says only a handful of similar facilities exist in the United States.
The two centers have the look and feel of a typical gym. “When you look at the equipment, it looks like any other fitness center, and to me that's the best thing,” Hart says. “It's not until we show someone that each piece is usable to someone in a wheelchair that they see any difference.” Additions to standard gym equipment include adaptable footplates, cuffs, mitts and swing-out seats so someone can roll up to the piece.
“We heard from so many of our consumers that there was a huge demand [for a fitness center like this],” Hart says. “We now have satisfied that demand with a large amount of adaptive equipment, a knowledgeable staff and a good comfort level.”
With several locations in five states, the Courage Center is a 75-year-old nonprofit organization that serves more than 17,000 people each year. It includes facilities for physical, speech, outpatient and occupational therapies and a 64-bed transitional rehabilitation center. Two camps in Minnesota, Camp Courage and Courage North, provide outdoor activities and environmental education for adults and children with disabilities. The organization also runs sports and recreation programs throughout the Midwest that host wheelchair basketball, downhill skiing, fishing and quad rugby.
Because the importance of physical fitness is a guiding precept for the Courage Center, a grant from the Bayport Foundation helped the organization start its first fitness center in Stillwater, Minn. Opened in July 2001 as a pilot program, the 722-square-foot facility produced favorable user feedback. “People were able to increase their daily functions, such as carrying laundry baskets. One member was able to endure the stamina to take a leisure trip and sightsee,” says Hart.
There are 170 members at the Golden Valley gym, and the fitness center in Stillwater serves more than 200. Hart adds that there are plans to expand both facilities. “We hope to serve more than 1,000 people at each location within the next few years,” she says.
Seventy-four percent of Courage Center members, aged 11 to 77, have neurological disorders such as spinal cord injuries or cerebral palsy, and some have arthritis.
“Providers should advocate seeing this kind of center spawned across the country,” Hart says.
“Often one or two pieces [of equipment], such as a treadmill, elliptical machine or a quad gym, could get a lot done in the home … just promoting the idea that people with disabilities can improve daily functioning skills and secondary skills from exercise would be an enormous help.”