A New Use for "Down Time": How Fitness Professionals Can (and Should!) Reach Out to People with Disabilities
Fitness professionals have a unique opportunity to make a contribution to improving the lives of people with disabilities by encouraging their participation in the services and programs offered at their facilities. One way to begin this effort is by using 'off-peak' hours to have fitness staff call, interact with, and visit people with disabilities who live in the community but are likely to never start a fitness program without encouragement from a professional.
There are several hours during the weekday when fitness facilities have very low volume. Heavy use of these facilities usually runs from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 4 to 7 p.m. Meanwhile, between 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. -- about 5 hours a day -- many fitness facilities have relatively low volume. While some managers keep their staff busy with other chores during these off-peak hours, the activities are often not related to the high level of training that many staff receive in their undergraduate and graduate exercise science programs.
It would be great if managers of fitness facilities required their staff to reach out to community members with disabilities. Many people with disabilities have time available during off-peak hours to use these facilities because they work part-time, are no longer employed, or are retired. Since finances are a major barrier to joining fitness centers, it would be helpful to have the membership fee prorated based on income level and time used, which some facilities are already doing. When you consider the time that people with disabilities have to use these facilities during off-peak hours, combined with the need for professional staff to become more involved in reaching out to community members with disabilities, the combination seems like a good match for improving the low level of participation among people with disabilities.
Every professional training program in this country should be required to include academic content that builds a philosophical framework among future fitness professionals regarding their primary role as members of a health professional team that reaches out to underserved members of a community. Many undergraduate training programs prepare students to work with various populations such as people with heart disease and diabetes, but provide minimal or no content on how to work with people with physical, cognitive and sensory disabilities.
|Differences in Physical Inactivity and Obesity Between People with and without Disabilities.|
Instructors who teach in professional training programs must educate students on how to take a more proactive approach in reaching out to community members with disabilities. Health data reported on people with disabilities indicate that they are physically less active and have higher rates of obesity (see graph). At the same time, many people with disabilities find fitness facilities not very friendly: some parts of the facility are inaccessible; fitness professionals often have little to no training in disability; and the images portrayed in brochures and advertisements exclude images of people with disabilities.
Given the nature of various secondary conditions that are associated with physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities, it is critical that we begin to use the talents of professional staff who work in fitness facilities during off-peak hours to reach out to underserved community members. One of the major goals for all fitness professionals should be to encourage participation by people with disabilities in every aspect of health and fitness and to empower them to manage their own health. A good place to start is by encouraging use of these facilities during off-peak hours when members can obtain greater individual attention at an affordable cost.
Fitness professionals could and should be making a substantially greater contribution to the health and quality of life of people with disabilities than they currently are. They should no longer be waiting for people with disabilities to show up at their facilities but, rather, they should be taking a more aggressive approach by reaching out to potential members through phone calls, home visits, and working with various independent living centers and disability service organizations. This would clearly be a defining moment for our profession and would bode well for the future of our nation's citizens with disabilities.