New Gym Caters to Clients with Disabilities

At Fit Together, people who say they don't fit in at a traditional gym can work out in comfort. The new gym in western Massachusetts caters to mentally disabled clients, who get the extra help they need in following directions and managing the equipment.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

There is no doubt that regular exercise improves mental acuity and mood, not to mention that it helps with chronic health problems. But people with a severe mental illness or disability often feel overwhelmed by the intense workout atmosphere of most health clubs.

From member station WFCR, Karen Brown reports on one fitness alternative.

Unidentified Man: Put your arms back there. There you go.

KAREN BROWN: At the Fit Together Health Club in Hadley, Massachusetts, a trainer is helping a young man strengthen his biceps on a weightlifting machine. The room is well lit with lines of Nautilus equipment and Stairmasters and TVs on the wall. There's little to distinguish this from your typical neighborhood YMCA, except for the clients.

Roland Paquet(ph) has just finished running 40 minutes on a treadmill. He shows his trainer how much distance he covered.

Mr. ROLAND PAQUET (Client, Fit Together Health Club, Hadley, Massachusetts): In a mile, 93.

BROWN: And you were going really fast.

Mr. PAQUET: Yeah.

BROWN: The 21-year-old has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, and lives at a group home. Twice a week, he comes to work out at this gym - one of the first in the country dedicated to the mentally ill, retarded and brain-injured.

Mr. PAQUET: Well, I want to lose my gut, for one, you know, walking around with a stomach in your pool isn't exactly a good sensation.

BROWN: Not an uncommon goal for anyone, really. But Paquet has never felt comfortable at traditional health clubs.

Mr. PAQUET: When you go to other places, you feel like you're the only person with that illness. I felt like I was being stared at.

BROWN: No one stares at this gym, which is run by a local non-profit agency. Director Brit Rue(ph) says people here are expected to be a little different.

Ms. BRIT RUE (Director, Fit Together Health Club, Hadley, Massachusetts): We have members here who love working out in a gym but need to be shown how to use the weight equipment every time they come. Another person only feels comfortable wearing a skirt. People aren't going to look twice at her because she's not dressed in your traditional gym attire.

BROWN: And then there are emotional issues staff are trained to recognize. Forty-four year old Lisa Sergeant(ph) is diagnosed with several mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress. She says at other gyms, she gets scared when trainer sounds too aggressive even if they're just trying to motivate her.

Ms. LISA SARGEANT (Client, Fit Together Health Club, Hadley, Massachusetts): Because I've dealt with a lot of aggressiveness in my past, and it would bring back things from my past that would freak me out. Here, it's more friendly, soft-spoken, not saying, well, you have to do it, you know, saying, well, it would be nice if you do it.

BROWN: Sergeant's lost 46 pounds. Much of that excess weight was a side effect of her psychiatric medication. Now, she feels great and her asthma is much better. Director Brit Rue says chronic health conditions, including obesity, often go hand in hand with mental illness. Some of her clients have gained 20 pounds in one month.

Ms. RUE: And if you think about it, that's like needing to buy a new pair of pants at a bigger size every week or two. I mean, it really affects people in the way they feel, the way they move, how they feel about themselves.

BROWN: The biggest challenge to running the state-of-the-art facility, says Rue, is paying for it. Some money comes the state of Massachusetts. Rue would like it to become self-sustaining through membership fees. But at the subsidized price of $20 a month, Fit Together also needs to attract members of the general public. After all, Rue points out, most people appreciate a non-judgmental atmosphere when they exercise.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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