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Making Fitness Environments More Inclusive

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

One of the key dimensions to wellness is physical health (the others include emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, vocational, and environmental). Going to the gym is one of the most common ways we work on our physical dimension – so much so that we often take for granted the ease of popping into the gym for a quick workout with the masses.

But what if a person doesn’t feel comfortable going to a fitness center because the person’s unique needs aren’t met? What if the person doesn’t feel like he or she fits in?

This is common among people with developmental disabilities because most gyms aren’t structured, set-up, or staffed to meet the needs of this population. That’s unfortunate considering that people with developmental disabilities and other special needs are at an increased risk for obesity as well as more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

In other words, the unique needs and risks of those with developmental disabilities, paired with the unaccommodating characteristics of most fitness environments, make it extremely challenging for people with special needs to stay physically fit and healthy.

If you currently go to a gym or fitness center and do not have a developmental disability such as Down syndrome or an autism spectrum disorder, imagine what it might be like to go there if you did have special needs. Would you feel as comfortable as you do now? Would you still go?

Enter Jared Ciner, a fitness expert, trainer, and disabilities support counselor who recently founded SPIRIT Fit and Health. His goal is to break down the barriers that keep people with developmental disabilities from being active by offering an inclusive fitness environment tailored to meet the needs of this population. The SPIRIT acronym cleverly stands for Social, Physical, Interactive, Respectful, Inclusive, and Together.

In SPIRIT Fit and Health’s 8-week program, Ciner creates an environment where clients can exercise, socialize, and learn together. He focuses on teaching individuals with special needs about healthy choices and behaviors, principles of exercise, and proper nutrition with the hope that these habits will persist over a lifetime. The agency also offers individual and small group coaching and training for those who might need more personal assistance.

Ciner’s program, which is local to Maryland, impresses me because he realized that structured programming was a necessary and compassionate response to meeting the needs of an underserved population. On the company’s website he states, “As a society we are responsible for one another. SPIRIT Fit & Health enables people in need of accommodations to participate in socially interactive health & fitness programming just like the rest of the community.”

Amen to that. I certainly hope that Ciner’s example will encourage other fitness experts, organizations, and communities to explore and develop similar programs across the country.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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