Fitness Flexes: Gyms, wellness programs adapt to diverse needs

Wellness is designed for everyone, regardless of accommodation or disability, and fitness centers are creating new programs to suit all needs.

Some programs are focused on a certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy. Others are broad to allow transition from therapy programs to long-term health and wellness. No matter the mission, all strive to create a sense of independence and confidence that participants may not have when trying to work out at a traditional gym.

“Exercise is medicine, so instead of a pill or change of lifestyle you can come in and get a couple minutes of exercise that will also benefit you mentally,” said Ryan Macalintal, an exercise physiologist at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation.

Macalintal is fitness coordinator of Good Shepherd’s Optimal Fitness, a gym geared towards people with disabilities and located at the rehabilitation hospital’s main campus in Allentown. The facility is wheelchair-accessible with a covered parking garage and showers to accommodate people with disabilities. It also has equipment such as standing frames and bikes to promote circulation for conditions such as spinal cord injuries.

Members pay a $35 monthly fee without a set contract or initial fee and the general population is also welcome to join, he said. They can schedule one-on-one sessions with staff or come and go as they please. A pool is also available at an additional fee.

Optimal Fitness isn’t the only option. About three years ago Good Shepherd launched Rock Steady Boxing Lehigh Valley. It is a boxing program for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and offers five levels of classes to accommodate patients at the early stages of the disease, where they are still functioning close to normal, up to the later stages when they are wheelchair bound Those at later stages often have caregivers or volunteers assisting them.

Rock Steady Lehigh Valley started with three to five participants per class and has grown to 15 to 18, Macalintal said. Most find out about the program through word of mouth while others are referred by their physicians or therapists. Classes are taught by Macalintal and Dori Billowhich, both of whom are certified Rock Steady instructors.

The program, which is an affiliate of Rock Steady Boxing Inc., has found much success nationwide since being founded in 2006 in Indianapolis. According to the Rock Steady web site, non-contact boxing promotes intense, forced exercise and movement that helps range of motion, posture, balance and gait, all of which are impacted by Parkinson’s, which is a degenerative movement disorder.

Body Zone in Reading learned of Rock Steady Boxing through a member newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s and is holding its first classes in February. Five employees at Body Zone completed the Rock Steady certification program, which consisted of 26 hours of training.

“Body Zone continually strives to meet the community’s wellness needs and bringing Rock Steady Boxing to our complex was a natural fit for us,” said Ted Kolva, general manager. “Our goal is to be an embracing and welcoming community that empowers and supports our Parkinson’s community through movement, exercise and access to our wellness programs.”

About 20 participants are registered for the first classes, said Christine Kolva, Body Zone’s marketing and communications manager. Classes are listed on the Body Zone web site, and sign up for the 90-minute sessions is unlimited. Participants also get full membership to Body Zone’s fitness and aquatics center, which offers courses on nutrition and stress management, as well as a Silver Sneakers fitness program for older adults.

One issue many face is paying for fitness programs as they are currently not considered therapy by insurance companies, Macalintal said. People with disabilities often rely on grants and community fundraisers. Kolva said Body Zone is already working with volunteers on future fundraising events.

Organizations such as the IM Able Foundation have also formed. Based out of Corps Fitness, a gym in Wyomissing, IM Able provides grants, resources and opportunities for people with disabilities. Owner Chris Kaag, a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who suffered from a neuro-degenerative condition, opened the gym in 2004 and the foundation in 2007.

The program has grown over the years and launched an IM Fit program this month. Kaag said the program, which started Jan. 15, is an eight-week adaptive physical fitness session featuring circuit-based training and obstacle courses geared towards teens and young adults with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Participants will be mentored not only by Kaag’s staff, but also by volunteers and law enforcement officers.

Many participants in Kaag’s programs plan to continue for the remainder of their lives, and his sessions can be modified as they age. Kaag has noticed that programs for people with disabilities are becoming more mainstream, which may continue to create opportunity down the road.

“The milestone was the Para Olympics,” he said. “It’s so great to see more commercials with people with chairs or crutches, that people are accepting differences.”

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