This month we sat down with David Geslak, the president and founder of Exercise Connection, to discuss accessibility and inclusion in fitness.
What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to accessibility and inclusion in the fitness industry?
Many fitness professionals think offering a class for those with a disability is inclusion. While this is a good first step, it’s not true inclusion. The biggest challenge facing the fitness industry is understanding what inclusion truly looks like.
An inclusive class is having a person with autism or a person in a wheelchair exercising together with the neurotypical population. The fitness industry needs to view accessibility to also include making sure individuals are easily understood and appreciated.
What are some ways health clubs can be more inclusive?
Fitness professionals need to invest in educating their staff and themselves on how to work with those with disabilities.
ACSM has created specialty certifications and certificates so fitness professionals are prepared to work with special needs clients. ACSM offers a Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer and Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer. To help those diagnosed with autism, ACSM created the Autism Exercise Specialist certificate.
Many gyms already have great equipment that can be used successfully with persons with a variety of disabilities, but not all. Educating yourself on better understanding the person and the disability will help you determine if you need to invest in new equipment.
Can you share a bit on what Exercise Connection (EC) is doing to further accessibility and inclusion?
Early on, EC recognized that while tremendous progress has been made for those with autism in the classroom setting, those same strategies had not made their way into exercise or the fitness industry. Many of those with autism are left wandering and wondering in classes. Fitness facilities regularly turn this population away — intentionally or unintentionally — because they are uneducated on how to help.
My multidisciplinary team and I created a variety of evidence-based exercise teaching strategies — which are now supported in research — to better engage those with autism in exercise. In partnership with ACSM, we created the Autism Exercise Specialist certificate supported by an independent research study. It was ACSM’s No. 1 Specialist CEC course in 2021.
In collaboration with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), we created an autism exercise video series that has nearly 750,000 views. This series educates and prepares fitness professionals, physical educators and therapists on exercise protocols in a variety of teaching settings. NCHPAD also created the Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer Certification in partnership with ACSM.
David Geslak’s three tips for making fitness more accessible for all:
1. Everyone needs to be involved with inclusion. It’s not just about having the trainers educated — the entire staff needs to be involved.
2. See the difference — visuals work. In the case of those with autism, a picture works better than a thousand words. They, and many others, are visual learners. Taking your verbal commands out of the exercise instruction and showing a picture will make the big difference.
3. The individual is not your only client. While it’s critical to build the relationship with them, the same needs to be done with their caregivers.
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