News Journal: YMCA adaptive fitness program helps create independence for disabled

By Meredith Newman
July 13, 2017

Kathleen Blanchett of Dover walks on a treadmill using a support harness as Beth Johnson a wellness coordinator at the Dover YMCA monitors her fitness workout.

When Kathleen Blanchett stepped onto the YMCA treadmill for the first time last month, she had one goal in mind:

Walk her daughter down the aisle.

She had suffered four strokes since 2013, leaving her body weak on both her right and left side. The Dover resident was unable to do the simplest tasks, including walking to her mailbox to get the mail everyday. At first she was dependent on wheelchair, then a walker and now a cane.

For three days a week, she’s walked on Dover YMCA’s specialized treadmill, where she’s secured and supported by an adjustable harness. It’s part of the YMCA’s “Y for All” adaptive fitness program, which hopes to reduce limitations for people who have physical challenges or disabilities.

On July 1, Blanchett walked her daughter Dante Woolfolk down the aisle. No equipment needed.

The innovative program started two years ago at the Bear-Glasgow branch of the Y and was recently implemented at the Dover location. It’s in the process of being opened at the Western branch.

Fitness experts say the equipment gives people who once felt unwelcome because of their limitation the opportunity to regularly exercise. And University of Delaware researchers are finding that this kind of adaptive exercise is making adults with disabilities healthier, more social and feel a greater sense of independence.

“It gives them a quality of life back,” said Sheri Minear, wellness director at Dover YMCA. “Many times people get self conscious with their limitations.

“This allows them to be equal.”

The three Y locations all have an adjustable harnesses that allow people to use a treadmill and participate in exercises classes. The Bear-Glasgow has a motomed, an exercise bike that can be used from a wheelchair.

It costs each branch about $25,000 to install the equipment, said Jim Kelly, YMCA Delaware’s chief operating officer. The organization’s goal is to install the equipment at all branches in the coming years.

“What we’re doing needs to become the norm,” he said. “All of our branches and everyone who uses it needs to feel very comfortable. We thought we would have push back from members, but they’ve embraced it.”

Bob Seaberg of Magnolia walks on a treadmill using a support harness as Beth Johnson a wellness coordinator at the Dover YMCA monitors his fitness workout.

Many of the members use the equipment because of limitations from an illness. To use the equipment, gym members fill out an application and have a consultation with the YMCA’s program director. The equipment is then used on an appointment basis.

Minear said this is the first time in her career where she’s seen equipment like this available to the public. It’s typically found in a hospital physical therapy facility, she said.

Having the equipment in the middle of the gym has allowed members, like Bob Seaberg, of Magnolia, to feel a part of the YMCA community instead of feeling “different.”

“You’re just getting on,” he said. “You’re nothing special.”

Seaberg suffered four strokes — in the span of a couple weeks — in 2009. It left him weak on the left side of his body and caused difficulty walking.

Before the equipment was installed in Dover, Seaberg said he was confined to using only a handful of machines at the gym. But now, after using the treadmill for about a year, he’s been able to increase his stamina. He hopes to get back on the golf course soon.

Advocates for people with disabilities haven’t had the options to work out.

And data shows that they’re more prone to health problems.

There are about 21 million adults living with disabilities in the U.S. and about of half don’t get aerobic physical activity, according to 2014 data from the Center For Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC also found that adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer, and a sedentary lifestyle contributes to all of those.

EPIC, a local non-profit that provides fitness services to adults with disabilities, has used the equipment at Bear-Glasgow since the program’s inception.

Jack Jadach, EPIC’s executive director, said he’s found that many of the dozen of adults who have used the adaptive exercise equipment are now at an appropriate weight and have “blossomed” socially.

“Our clients want to feel part of the action,” he said.

EPIC is working with University of Delaware professors and students to develop the best fitness practices for adults with disabilities.

Iva Obrusnikova, a professor of behavioral health and nutrition at the University of Delaware, specializes in the inclusion of people with disabilities in physical activity settings. For the past year and a half, she’s studied how the adapted exercise techniques have physically and socially affected the adults at the Bear-Glasgow YMCA.

Obrusnikova said she is looking to define ways to bring adults with disabilities into the fitness community — and how to empower them to stay.

Obrusnikova and her students work with the adults individually for about four weeks, where they teach them how to use the machines and exercise techniques, as well as gym etiquette. After that “intervention stage,” she provides the adults with iPads that have video and visual instructions of the techniques.

Then, for eight weeks, she monitors their progress.

“We’re testing how to make them independent,” she said. “It’s the entire concept of empowerment. We use iPads and headphones because it looks cool. We want them to feel comfortable.”

The professor recently applied for a grant from the National Institute of Health with the hopes to expand the study. So far, Obrusnikova said she’s learned from her research that, with the right techniques, people with severe disabilities can still find happiness??? in a fitness facility.

“I never thought we would have accomplished that,” she said. “You’re not doing them a service to hover over them. Less is better.”

Christiana Care Health System has partnered with EPIC to have physical therapists create fitness plans for adults with disabilities that can be used at the YMCA, said Brian Catania, the physical therapy program manager at Christiana Care’s rehabilitative services in Glasgow.

Right now, the physical therapists are only working with a couple of clients and the program is expected to expand in the fall. The ultimate goal is to track the client’s outcomes and publish results so others can utilize the techniques, Catania said.

Charlene Triplett, of Wilmington, said her son Brian Johnson, who is autistic and nonverbal, hasn’t missed a workout in the past year since becoming involved with EPIC and using the equipment at Bear-Glasgow.

Brian, who will turn 36 later this month, was overweight and had trouble moving around before he started working out at the YMCA, Triplett said. This the first time in his adult life that he’s received regular exercise.

In the past year, Johnson has lost about 16 pounds and his blood pressure is now under control. He works out about twice a week and is known by members and trainers for his high fives.

Triplett recalls watching her son exercise in the pool a couple of months ago during an Adaptive Fitness training. Since Brian is autistic, he’s typically withdrawn during these kind of activities, she said.

But in this moment, he was making eye contact with his peers and was excited to throw the ball to his new friends.

“It’s the best thing to ever happen to us,” she said.

Try it yourself

Want to try the YMCA’s adaptive exercise equipment? Learn more by calling your local YMCA branch. For more information, go to

To get involved with EPIC, go to


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