Teamwork is an integral part of the health and fitness program at Spirit Club, a gym in suburban Washington where most of the participants have autism, Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.
“Our main focus is the same thing as any other gym, which is to help people be active and healthy," said Jared Ciner, who created the club in Kensington, Maryland, two years ago. "The difference is that we do modify a little bit to make sure that it is right pace for the people we are working with, so that everybody can follow along.”
Ciner used to work as a support counselor for a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people with disabilities and as a part-time personal trainer at gyms.
“I noticed that the people who I was working with who had disabilities, many of them were very sedentary, did not exercise, struggled with weight issues, and were looking for more physical outlets and more social outlets,” he said.
His volunteer experience in Ethiopia working with children from severely impoverished families helped him understand the impact of structured physical programming, too.
That experience "helped me realize how much organized physical activity can help people become more socially involved and connected to each other and increase people’s mood and self-esteem,” Ciner said.
Classes at Spirit Club are interactive, and students can come with caregivers. They participate in partnered workouts and learn balance, flexibility, strength, speed and agility. They are also encouraged to eat right.
Alan Bradshaw, who is mentally disabled, has been coming to classes for two years. “He recently lost 21 pounds," said his mother, Jill Bradshaw. "He is more outgoing. He is more flexible. When he first started, he couldn’t sit on the floor, get down on the floor. He is doing that now.”
Valerie Rigaux, another regular visitor to the club, has developmental delays. "I like the gym because I can make friends easily and exercise at the same time,” she said.
Even two of Ciner’s assistant trainers have disabilities.
A "really important part of what we are doing is making sure that these opportunities are available to all people, regardless their physical ability, mental ability, also their financial situation," he said.
Ciner is now working on fundraising to increase scholarship opportunities.