Facility Name: University of Illinois-Chicago

Location: Chicago

Research type: Physical fitness for individuals with disabilities

Funding sources: National Institutes of Health

When visiting 35 health clubs around the Chicago area recently, Dr. James Rimmer discovered that most fitness facilities' accessibility stopped at their front door. While the majority had ramps and curb cuts, the clubs offered few amenities, facilities or equipment suitable for individuals with disabilities.

Fitness facility access is one of the issues Dr. Rimmer, a professor of disability and human development at the University of Chicago and his co-investigators — Dr. Jennifer Rowland, Dr. Carol Braunschweig, Dr. Barth Riley, Dr. Ed Wang, Robin Jones and Marya Morris — will be investigating with a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant, “Building Health Empowerment Zones for People with Disabilities: Obesity and the Built Environment,” will create a Health Empowerment Zone, a three-mile, densely populated area on Chicago's West Side. The area includes many recreation facilities as well as many thousands of people with mobility disabilities who require assistance to walk further than one block. The first phase of the project will transform businesses like fitness centers and grocery stores and built environment structures like bus stop areas and sidewalks into disability-friendly accessible structures. During the first three years, the researchers will create a natural laboratory to observe changes in physical activity and eating behaviors as a result of improved access to sidewalks, clubs, stores and mass transportation, says Rowland, the project director.

Phase II, called the Ticket to Health Campaign, will involve distributing pre-paid vouchers to a random sample of Phase I participants who can redeem the tickets for specific products or services from businesses located in the Health Empowerment Zone. Such products may include purchase of health foods at grocery stores, paid sessions at community fitness and recreation centers, and travel on mass transit. The researchers will measure the participants' weight, body mass index and blood pressure before Phase II and at the end of the study and compare their health to the control group, which will be located in a demographically similar section of Chicago without any physical improvements to accessibility.

Rimmer hopes the participants will begin improving their health by exercising more and eating a nutritious diet. By altering the environment and making it more accessible, health clubs can provide people with disabilities a more positive experience and inspire them to change their health, says Rimmer, the director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.

“If you build it, they will come,” Rimmer says.