Imagine not having use of your legs and visiting your fitness facility in a wheelchair. After expending an enormous amount of energy to change into your workout clothes and travel to the gym, would you be confronted with long flights of stairs, inaccessible equipment, a swimming pool without a lift and a bathroom lacking accessible stalls? If so, it's time to make a change and start serving the more than 20 percent of the population who has a disability, said Dr. James Rimmer, director of the Center on Health Promotion Research for Persons with Disabilities and the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) in Chicago.

Fitness facilities that aren't welcoming to the disabled could soon face some stiff fines. While the current Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't require clubs to make locker rooms, exercise equipment areas and swimming pools accessible to individuals with disabilities, the guidelines could soon change. The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board recently finalized a revised set of regulations, the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing comments on the changes and the government plans to release the new ADA guidelines in the next two to four years.

Many fitness facilities have a long way to go in terms of improving their accessibility, Rimmer said. He and his team assessed the accessibility of 16 for-profit clubs and 19 not-for-profit clubs in six areas — built environment, equipment, pools, information, facility policies and professional behavior. The researchers concluded that all 35 clubs had a low to moderate level of accessibility and individuals with disabilities or visual impairments had a difficult time accessing different areas of the clubs.

“Many people with disabilities have been shut out of the whole movement of health and fitness,” said Rimmer, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “The perception is ‘you already have a disability. Why would you want to become healthy?’ We need to change that image because everyone needs to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

Americans with disabilities have been shown to be more sedentary, have greater health problems and have more physical activity barriers compared to the general population, according to research by Rimmer and his team. A report titled “Healthy People 2010” found that 56 percent of people with disabilities engaged in no leisure-time physical activity. These individuals often aren't able to exercise outdoors due to damaged sidewalks, narrow walking paths, adverse weather conditions or unsafe neighborhoods.

“Here's a segment of society who needs fitness centers more than anyone else on the planet,” he said. “Yet they can't wake up and put their shoes on and go for a run. The fitness industry has created machines for an able-bodied population, yet the people who really need this machinery aren't able to use it.”

Effect of ADA on Clubs

The new ADA guidelines could help make fitness facilities more accessible to members with disabilities, but these changes may affect fitness facilities' bottom line, said Helen Durkin, director of public policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). The organization submitted comments to clarify the ADA requirements governing public accommodation. The ADA guidelines require health clubs to provide a clear floor space of at least 30 inches by 48 inches around each type of equipment, but the regulation doesn't specify whether a health club would need to provide space around two different types and brands of equipment that work out the same muscle group, Durkin said.

“If there are six different machines that are working out pecs, we want to make sure that a club doesn't have to make sure that the space around all six machines are accessible,” Durkin said.

By increasing the floor space around each type of equipment, it may be necessary to remove machines, which could have a detrimental effect on a health club's profitability, she said. Members could drop their membership if they were forced to wait in line for their favorite equipment, possibly negatively affecting net sales, she said.

However, Rimmer said all clubs would have to comply with the ADA, so members wouldn't gain anything by jumping from one health club to another club.

“That's not a good rationale for not doing it,” he said. “If you lose members, you lose members. But you'll also gain members — people with disabilities and the elderly.”

Brad Cardinal, an associate professor of exercise and sports science at Oregon State University, agreed. Two years ago, he conducted a field study of 50 fitness clubs in western Oregon. He found that while many of the clubs had compliant ramps or wide doors, only 8 percent of the facilities offered adequate accessibility to the exercise equipment. As a former club owner, he said he understood the need to pack as much fitness equipment in as possible, but floor plans still must be accessible to everyone.

ADA compliance is easiest when done during design and construction of a new club, and making existing clubs ADA-compliant may require costly renovations, but that's not always the case, said Amy Rauworth, associate director of operations and exercise physiology research for NCPAD.

“When most fitness facilities think of renovating to comply with ADA regulations, they may think they have to knock down walls, but they can make these changes at a minimal or no cost,” she said.

However, the new regulations require removal of architectural barriers in existing clubs where removal is “readily achievable,” and since much of the equipment is moveable with the right equipment, IHRSA has expressed concerns.

“If you applied this standard without any explanation, then this regulation would apply to the entire fitness floor and the position of the exercise pieces,” said Durkin. “We don't want them to view equipment as an easily movable architectural barrier. This could have significant financial implications for clubs.”

Overall, the ADA is a tricky law that is difficult for fitness professionals to understand, Durkin said.

“Clubs don't like this issue and don't want to think about it,” she said. “When it happens to them, that's when they get concerned about it. It's so complicated, and there's no easy answers.”

Improving Accessibility

But not all health clubs feel that way. The Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, CA, offers a therapeutic swimming program, wheelchair ramps, elevators and accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. And Liberty Fitness, an Austin, TX-based company with 61 women's 30-minute circuit training facilities in 16 states, installed the industry's first hearing-impaired circuit in its Riverside, CA, location. A blinking green light tells deaf or hard-of-hearing members when they need to change positions and a red heart-shaped sign tells them when it's time to stop exercising and do a heart-rate count. Owners Dianne and Larry Brown invested $10,000 in the research and development of the system after one of their members told them there was a large deaf community in Riverside, CA (17 percent of Riverside is deaf or hard-of-hearing, and a school for the deaf is located only four miles from their club).

CrossTrainers Fitness Forum in Clinton Township, MI, took accessibility to the next level by designing its workout facility for all abilities and disabilities. When a car accident left owner Christopher Grobbel paralyzed from the chest down, he opened a completely accessible 18,000-square-foot health club. In a section of the gym called Wheelchair Alley, members can use specialized devices and adaptive equipment for strength training to make it easier for them to transfer in and out of their wheelchairs.

About 5 percent of the club's 1,500 members have a disability, but Grobbel said he'd like to increase it to 25 percent. When trying to reach the disabled community, he said he faces three challenges — lack of public transportation, fixed incomes and sometimes lack of motivation to exercise. But he hasn't given up hope yet. Some of his members travel as far as 50 miles just to come to his club to exercise. He said in his club, able-bodied members work side-by side with members with disabilities. Grobbel said he hopes other clubs will follow his example and embrace this market.

“You can take a basic gym, train your people, space out the equipment and you're off to the races,” he said. “The cost of making a club more accessible is so minimal compared to what you can do to enrich someone's life.”

24 Ways to Improve Your Accessibility

Fitness facilities can improve their club's accessibility without breaking the bank. Here are 24 ways that your health club, rec center or military fitness facility can make some simple changes to help pull in new members, embrace a new market and help those with disabilities lead a healthy, active life.

A. Adjust closer pressure or add power openers at doors that require a lot of opening force to assist members with balance or strength difficulties.

B. Secure loose mats or install a new permanent floor surface to minimize a tripping hazard.

C. Lower a section of the check-in counter so members in a wheelchair can see employees.

D. Place detectable objects under a protruding hazard or lower a wall-mounted feature to prevent a hazard for those with vision impairments.

E. Diversify equipment/items so people with a variety of abilities can use them.

F. Add seating for those who need periodic rest.

G. Move/rearrange equipment to provide a convenient, accessible route.

H. Move/rearrange equipment so there is enough floor space beside at least one of each type of machine.

I. Include cardio equipment that can serve a wider range of users and machines that can be used by the upper body.

J. Rearrange/move equipment to provide clear floor space beside each type of weight machine with fixed integral seats.

K. Replace equipment with weight machines that have movable seats and other adaptable/adjustable features. Consider investing in machines with seats that flip up or swing out of the way.

L. Rearrange weight equipment to provide enough space for accessible routes to each type of machine.

M. Replace or modify the multi-station exercise machine so that seats can be removed or adapted.

N. Move/relocate a multi-station exercise machine to allow people using a variety of mobility devices to access it.

O. Ask staff to monitor and store unattended personal training items that can obstruct access.

P. Rearrange/relocate weight stands and benches to allow additional approaches and maneuvering choices for people using mobility devices such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers.

Q. Move furniture and/or counters to improve access for employees with disabilities.

R. Adapt your programming for individuals who have varying levels of abilities.

S. Replace door hardware with handles such as loops or levers that can be operated with a closed fist.

T. Lower high shelves or replace with a magazine rack within reach of seated users and individuals of short stature.

U. Rearrange and/or replace furniture to permit an accessible route through a lobby and to offices.

V. Provide a dual-height drinking fountain with knee space to serve the needs of both standing adults and those who are seated in mobility devices.

W. Convert underused “junk” room space into an accessible unisex toilet/family changing room.

X. Replace room signage with signs that include raised type and Braille.

Source: National Center for Physical Activity and Disability, www.ncpad.org

  1. What You Can Do

    Improve your club's accessibility. Provide designated parking spaces, ramps and curb cuts, remove turnstiles and widen doorways to allow members with disabilities to easily enter your club. To make them feel comfortable once they're inside, widen the space around your equipment, make your bathrooms accessible and install lifts or elevators.

  2. For More Information

    Train your staff members. Teach your employees about your club's accessibility features and offer adaptive physical education training to your personal trainers.

  3. Conduct an annual ADA audit. Download a PDF of the ADA standards at www.usdoj.gov or call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800-514-0301 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

  4. Apply for a tax credit. If you own or manage a small health club with less than $1 million in annual revenue or less than 30 employees, you can apply for a tax credit for improving your club's accessibility through the Small Business Administration.

  5. Promote your club's accessibility on your Web site and in your advertising to show that your club is welcoming to new members with disabilities.

Access Board: www.abledata.com

Do you have a question on how to comply with ADA regulations? The Access Board offers free technical assistance.

Department of Justice: http://www.access-board.gov

Fitness professionals can request free ADA publications from the DOJ and call 800-514-0301 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800-514-0301 end_of_the_skype_highlighting for personalized assistance.

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc.: http://www.dredf.org

This organization provides training sessions, technical education and education for businesses.

Disabled Sports USA: http://www.dsusa.org

This group offers adaptive fitness instructor training to instructors, therapists, program directors and personal trainers and sells videos on how to modify fitness programs for people with disabilities.

National Center on Physical Activity and Disability: http://www.ncpad.org/exercise

NCPAD's Web site features an interactive illustration that shows a before-and-after makeover of a fitness facility as well as several fact sheets on adapting fitness programs for individuals with disabilities. The organization plans to soon publish a how-to booklet for health clubs who want to improve their facility's accessibility.