CHICAGO — UNIVERSITY of Illinois at Chicago researchers will use a $4.5 million grant to help make recreation and fitness activities and programs more accessible to people with disabilities.

The five-year grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research will be used to create a rehabilitation engineering research center focused on recreational technologies and exercise physiology.

”Research shows that regular physical activity helps to reduce the risk of a number of serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, depression and high-blood pressure,” said James Rimmer, a UIC professor of disability and human development.

“The goal of the new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center is to help the more than 54 million Americans with disabilities gain greater access to fitness and recreation opportunities through the use of existing and future technologies.”

Rimmer is principal investigator on the project. William Schiller, a UIC clinical assistant professor of disability and human development, is a co-investigator.

The grant will fund a coordinated set of 11 research, development and training projects. It will enable Rimmer and his colleagues to complete a needs assessment and collect data on available technology, develop virtual exercise environments, create fitness equipment that adapts to individual users, and use tele-exercise to promote exercise activity for people living in rural areas or who cannot easily leave home. In addition to technical research, the grant will also fund a partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine to train professionals and students in exercise physiology in the area of physical activity and disability, according to UIC officials.

Rimmer noted that there are many barriers keeping people with disabilities from participating in the physical activity and recreation most of us take for granted. The new center will develop technologies to overcome or eliminate those barriers, he said. The research team, for example, will work with Life Fitness to develop universal modifications for retrofitting its cardiovascular exercise equipment to accommodate the needs of wheelchair users.

Rimmer also said many people are not aware that one can have a disability and be healthy and active. As awareness increases, however, he predicts the demand for equipment and facilities accessible to persons with disabilities will also increase.

”Our work will help equipment manufacturers and facility planners design fitness and recreation equipment as well as fitness facilities in accordance with the demand,” Rimmer said.

In addition to Rimmer and Schiller, collaborators on the project include the University of Colorado, the Veterans Administration Palo Alto Health Care System and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

”The beauty of this new grant is that it fits extremely well with the work we are currently doing in the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, which is funded by a $3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” he said.

“These grants in combination further underscore our leadership in promoting physical activity for persons with disabilities.”