Gyms Adjust to People With Disabilities

Friday, July 2nd 2004, 10:41 am
By: News On 6

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. (AP) _ Nothing keeps Amy Sharp from going to the gym: not the wheelchair she needs to get around, not even cerebral palsy.

Twice a week, the 27-year-old Sharp is driven to Courage Center, where she spends an hour exercising her arms and legs and tossing a ball against a trampoline to practice balance and coordination.

``They always say, `If you don't use it, you lose it,''' she said.

Exercise is especially important to people with disabilities who are more likely to develop debilitating health problems that stem from their lack of mobility. But many gyms do not have right equipment for the disabled.

Minnesota's nonprofit Courage Center can accommodate anyone who is disabled, not just clients under doctor's orders to use its rehabilitation facilities. The gym opened in February a short distance from Sharp's home in the suburb of New Hope.

The equipment has seats that swing out of the way so workouts can be done from a wheelchair. Foot plates and straps are added to the leg press and other equipment to keep feet anchored and help those with limited body control. The Cybex machine can be adjusted for those who cannot fully straighten their legs or have limited motion in their joints.

As part of a stay-fit program customized for Sharp, she works with the fitness and therapy training staff on strength, flexibility, mobility and conditioning. She pays $150 for 10 half-hour sessions.

At a recent session, Sharp cheerfully wheels herself up a short ramp to the Ergometer fitness cycle, locks her wheelchair in place and lets the bars pump her arms in a fluid, rhythmic motion. Other equipment works her leg muscles. Later she tries to catch a rubber ball she bounces off a trampoline.

``Working out makes you feel better because you move, and when your body is moving more you feel better. At least I do,'' she said.

Philip Haberstro, president of the National Association for Health and Fitness in Buffalo, N.Y., called the Courage Center concept fantastic _ beyond what is generally available in for-profit clubs. But he sees it as an evolving trend that will be driven by market demand.

Life Time Fitness, for instance, a rapidly growing mainstream chain in eight states, has treadmills that move at a snail's pace and very lightweight dumbbells, but no swing-away seats or other accommodations for people with disabilities.

Haberstro acknowledged those changes will take time.

``From the business side, there has to be some demand from the marketplace,'' he said. ``The nonprofit community may, in part, be the solution'' because they can bridge the gap between for-profit chains and rehab centers.

Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said he would like to see more adaptive equipment in mainstream fitness centers because the disabled do not want to be segregated.

``A lot of doctors are encouraging their patients with disabilities to be more fit, and part of that is working out _ for folks who are able to work out,'' Imparato said.

He noted that some equipment designed for the disabled also will be suitable in the long run for aging limbs and muscles.

Paula Hart, vice president and chief operating officer of Courage Center, said people with disabilities sometimes have greater motivation to stay with a fitness program.

``Most people don't come here to get buff,'' she said. ``Part of what they are trying to do is become strong enough to do some of the daily tasks that the rest of us take for granted.''

Steve Ranallo, 37, was active enough in his job as a maintenance mechanic at a factory that he did not need to go to the gym. When he injured his spinal cord in a four-wheeler accident in 2000, he lost use of his legs and has very limited use of his upper body.

He works out up to three times a week at Courage Center's gym, intent on maintaining as much of his upper-body strength as possible. After he rolls his wheelchair into place at a machine called the UpperTone, an attendant secures a Velcro band around Ranallo's hand and a lever because he has no grip. It allows Ranallo to work the pulley systems and slide levers in a rowing motion and also use the chest press, with its wide angle to target a different muscle group. He works on shoulder compression, triceps, bicep curls and rotations.

``When I get out, I'll be looking for a job,'' Ranallo said. ``I'm feeling pretty good.''

Mike Stefanski, 52, of Plymouth, a stroke survivor, is rebuilding his stamina on the NuStep, an adapted stepper that resembles a stripped-down pedal boat.

``I belonged to a fitness center years ago. What I remember about it was that it seemed like a place for hard bodies to show off. Here, there are no egos. ... There's absolutely no competition,'' Stefanski said.

He said the stroke has given him a new perspective.

``If you don't try, well, you know how much better you're going to get,'' he said. ``We don't look very far. The horizon isn't way, way out there. The horizon is today, maybe tomorrow. At least mine is. I think I learned most of that here.''