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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
UW-Madison students coach Adapted Fitness program clients using exercise regiments tailored to the individual abilities of each person.

UW-Madison students coach Adapted Fitness program clients using exercise regiments tailored to the individual abilities of each person.

Adapted Fitness program trains clients with fitness plans for all abilities

A group of athletic-wear-clad people sit on the wooden floor of Gym 6 in UW-Madison’s Natatorium. They spike a ball over a net like any other volleyball match. In this game, though, the net sits 3.5 feet above the ground, and players must remain seated during the game.

This isn’t just a different way of playing volleyball. It’s an adapted form of exercise for clients of the program with various disabilities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 12.6 percent of Americans lived with a disability in 2016, and half of that population did not get aerobic physical activity. The UW-Madison Adapted Fitness program aims to help some of those seeking alternatives to a standard fitness center.

The program is operated by the university’s kinesiology department. Tim Gattenby, a faculty associate for the program, expanded it in 1986 to provide an inclusive, recreational exercise space for people of various abilities.

It is a popular program for individuals in the Madison community seeking physical therapy. And as clients learn methods for getting physical activity, UW-Madison students looking to enter such fields are partnered with them, acting as coaches.

Unlike most fitness programs, UW-Madison’s Adapted Fitness program is individually tailored to the specific needs and goals of each client. This is addressed through not only the student volunteers, but also with adaptable equipment and exercises. The sit-down volleyball game is one of many sports and activities — including biking, weight machines and swimming — that help clients be motivated to exercise and also feel included.

Each sport and activity chosen is focused on what each person needs. Mark Graser, a program participant, was originally sent to the rehab hospital but was recommended the Adapted Fitness program.

Graser said he was apprehensive at first but soon realized what this program could do for him.

“This is more than the gym,” Graser said. “It has all the support and people you need and the equipment.”

Adapted Fitness clients are each assigned at least one student volunteer. The student volunteers evaluate the client through a series of interview questions, and together they determine the goals they will work together to meet.

According to Gattenby, the students are learning how to provide the best assistance and accommodations to clients who have both permanent and temporary disabilities.

"Each volunteer is trained and encouraged to look beyond the client's diverse abilities and look to their unique goals,” Gattenby said. “Working toward a goal is what motivates both the student staff and client."

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Student volunteers can participate in the program for a semester or longer. Some get graduation credit for the class through the kinesiology program. Volunteers come from various majors — for example, UW-Madison engineering students participate by working with local design companies to build some of the special fitness equipment in the gym.

The clients vary in age from children to the elderly and travel from all over Dane County. They also have a wide spectrum of disabilities. Some have just been released from the hospital and are new to living with the aftereffects of a traumatic injury, including stroke, spinal cord injury or brain injury. Other participants experience cognitive disabilities, as well as cerebral palsy.

Yasmeena Ougayour, a UW-Madison senior and student volunteer, said she has learned communication is the most important aspect of working and getting to know your client and their needs.

“I have learned how to connect with people who are different from myself and find ways to educate myself every time I interact with a new client,” Ougayour said.

Gattenby encourages student volunteers to look beyond a client’s disability when speaking with them about their goals and value what each person wants to accomplish.

“The program primarily focuses on what each person’s end goal is, no matter how big or small, whether it is being able to water their plants or being able to run again,” Gattenby said.

Gattenby made it clear that all of his students and student volunteers make sure that they meet

each person at their own level and push them to achieve. The program not only helps the

clients who are receiving adaptive exercise and therapy, it also changes the attitude of the


“Between the one-on-one attention from UW-Madison students and other university

resources, there really isn’t another comparable adaptive fitness program in Wisconsin or

elsewhere,” Gattenby said. “This program brings people a sense of confidence in themselves no matter what their ability in life is.”

Ougayour recently witnessed one of her favorite moments in the gym. One of her

clients has a spinal cord injury and was unable to walk before the program due to lack of

supportive equipment. Adapted Fitness provided him with a machine that helped support his body weight and allowed him to take steps on a treadmill while being suspended by a harness.

“Moments like this make me love the program a little more every day I am here,” Ougayour said.

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