Feature Article - November 2007
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Survival of the Fitness

Adapt to Evolving Fitness Trends and Demographics—or Be Left Behind

By Kelli Anderson

Abling the disabled

They also are listening to the needs of a potentially huge population of fitness users—the disabled. As more and more accessible designs are becoming available, it's evident that times are changing, but it's been a slow improvement since the 1990 ADA incentive to make facilities accessible to all.

With only 7 percent of the population fitting into the usually-targeted healthy 19-to-35-year-olds, it seems almost ludicrous that the aging and increasing disabled populations in the United States have not gotten more attention from the fitness industry.

According to the National Center of Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD), 35 fitness facilities were investigated in 2005 to measure their effectiveness in the areas of equipment, pools, overall environment, facility information, and policies and professional behavior as it pertained to the needs of the disabled. The result? All were rated low to moderate. Ouch.

But improvements are being made. The Ed Roberts Campus in Berkley, Calif., due to open in two years, boasts that it will be the most accessible building in the world. The Ed Roberts Campus will contain offices and a community center with a café, a fitness center, child care facilities, an art gallery and more.

However, although it is being designed from beginning to end with accessibility in mind, its ultimate goal is that in making it accessible for all, it will by its nature blur the lines of distinction between "abled" and "disabled." After all, goes the reasoning of the board president, Dmitri Belser, if all buildings were designed to be completely accessible, who would think of people in wheelchairs as any less able to perform?

Iconic of the building's inclusive ambitions will be a central spiraling ramp seeming to float within the large, airy openness of the two-story lobby. The seven-foot-wide ramp is a dramatic focal point whose inspiration springs from the similarly dramatic flair of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Although not every fitness facility can follow in such attention-grabbing footsteps, taking leads from this project's accessible design is well within most fitness facilities' reach. From the automatic doors and elevators operated by foot paddles to Braille maps, the design allows the disabled to be independent.

The visually impaired will have the ability to realize their location from both touch and sound. The floors of each distinct area will have a different texture while distinctive music and water fountains will give them audio clues from which to orient themselves in their surroundings. Ensuring that all signage falls within a minimum font size for easier reading is a step any facility can take.

Therapy pools, great for those recuperating from an illness or injury, or those maximizing their ability to live healthier lives as they age or suffer from permanent conditions, are a great addition to any fitness center. Underwater treadmills, hydro-lifts and long-entrance ramps with hand rails enable these pools to address the needs of many kinds of users.

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Helen M. Galvin Health and Fitness Center is another facility dedicated to fitness for the disabled. This 4,000-square-foot facility has been a magnet for the disabled and has had a monthly average attendance of almost 2,000 for several years.

Thanks to a Web site provide by NCPAD, a virtual tour of the facility with tips and suggestions for everything from design ideas to equipment is available. Visit www.ncpad.org/get/VirtualTour/Welcome.htm to learn more.

According to this site, things as simple as spacing pieces of equipment to allow easy wheelchair mobility can make a big difference. In looking for more accessible equipment design, they also suggest seats that swivel to the side for wheelchair access or providing wrist cuffs and activity mitts to allow those with gripping difficulties to grasp weight machines or barbells.

Other features to look for include control panels within arm's reach for making adjustments and equipment that allows small incremental changes for the user. For cardiovascular equipment, like treadmills, something as simple as a design that doesn't require a high step to begin exercising is a step in the right direction. A harness for treadmills even helps support users with hip and knee problems so they can begin to return strength to their legs.

With such an enormous population in need of fitness outlets, it just makes sense to accommodate them. Getting the word out is key. Advertising accessibility through more than just text mediums—think radio and television—reaches a wider audience, as does publicizing to organizations that work with the disabled. If you advertise it, they will come!