Gyms Need a Higher Level of Technology To Reach People with Disabilities
|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director|
Let me use myself as an example. My wife often lectures me about my hunched-over posture while typing on my computer or driving. I have a tendency to round my shoulders and bring my head forward (a common problem for millions of people who use computers more than eight hours a day), which looks uncomfortable to her and, after a few hours, starts to feel uncomfortable to me. Spending 10 or more hours a day on a keyboard, and then driving home for an hour or more, places my body in an awkward position for almost half the day. I have a tendency, like many others, to exercise one or two primary sets of muscles that have nothing to do with my posture while completely ignoring certain essential muscle groups that could help the situation. But finding a machine that specifically targets the small muscles in the lower back or pulls my scapula (shoulder blades) closer together is not going to happen until the industry begins to realize that all of us need specialized machines tailored to our body types.
When we begin to address the specific muscle groups that need to be strengthened in a frail older adult, someone with a disability such as a spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis, or an athlete with cerebral palsy, where does one go to find a machine that targets the specific muscle groups that each of these individuals needs to improve health, function, and/or performance? A frail older adult may need work on the tiny erector spinae muscle in the lower back to improve a bent-over posture; an individual with a spinal cord injury may need strengthening of the external rotators of the shoulder; and the athlete with cerebral palsy may need to strengthen the shin muscles to offset tightness in the calf musculature. If you want to see how weak even the same muscle group is when you place it at a different angle than what it is accustomed to, try changing the seat height on one of your strength machines and see if you can lift the same amount of weight. Often you can't because the angle of the joint has changed, which now requires other parts of the muscle and other muscle groups to be recruited to perform that same movement.
Exercise equipment manufacturers can learn a great deal from observing the changes in the telecommunications industry. Cell phones today do so much more than they were capable of doing five years ago, and significant improvements have been made within the last year. They now adapt to your needs and preferences, with special ringers, automatic dialing, voice command, caller ID, surfing the Internet, and taking photos and video that you can download in seconds and send to friends or family. While the telecommunications industry changes almost monthly, exercise machines continue to have limited utility to people with various forms of paralysis and weakness, postural deficits, and specific conditions that may require certain movements to improve health and function.
In the not-too-distant future, someone is going to 'break out of the pack' and realize that there is a market for exercise equipment that addresses the needs and body types of people who sway from the standard body frame. Many automobiles are now able to automatically program your preferences for seat height, lumbar curvature, temperature level, side- and rearview mirrors, and the position of the steering column. You don't have to do a thing. It's all preprogrammed.
Wouldn't it be nice to have those same adjustments on exercise machines so that those of us with round shoulders, or others who are very large or very small, very weak or very strong, could have the machine recognize our specific needs and automatically adjust to our body types? When that day comes, it will revolutionize the fitness manufacturing industry and will have a profound impact on the health and function of people with disabilities and others who have been shut out because the equipment is not suitable to their individual needs.
After the tech industry gets its fill of making cell phones that control every system in our homes, from opening and closing doors, flipping channels, changing the thermostat, and starting dinner, the savvy tech engineers will find their way into the fitness industry. And when they do, expect to find exercise machines that will configure to your size, body type, disability, fatigue and pain level, posture, and even personality! And don't dare slump over your machine like you do at your computer, because it might even tell you to sit up straight! When this happens, people with disabilities and most everyone else will grow to enjoy visiting their local facility and interacting with their friendly exercise machines.