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Gym gets people with disabilities in shape

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Because of a spinal cord injury, Elizabeth Fust is paralyzed from the mid-back down, but don’t expect to see her sitting idly by, twiddling her thumbs, during her leisure time.

The Louisville lawyer is a regular at a gym that Frazier Rehab Institute has opened to members of the public who have disabilities.

The Community Fitness and Wellness Facility on the sixth floor of Frazier in downtown Louisville has become a haven for people like Fust who refuse to allow their disabilities to keep them from being physically active.

“Being healthy and strong is not just important for able-bodied people, it’s important for people with disabilities and may even be more important,” said Fust, 41, of Crescent Hill.

As a person with a spinal cord injury, for example, Fust is susceptible to various secondary health problems, from cardiovascular issues to pressure sores, she said.

But “remaining active and exercising ameliorates these problems, which is good for me, it’s good for my family and it’s good for the community,” she said. “It’s not good for any of those groups for me to be unhealthy and hospitalized.”

Fust is among more than 30 members who’ve joined the gym since it opened last fall.

“This facility has been a dream of many of ours for a long time,” supervisor Karey McDowell said.

“It’s really hard to find a place like this that meets the needs of people with disabilities,” said Laura Reynolds, 24, a wheelchair user who joined the gym about 2½ months ago.

Though it’s important for people who are disabled to be as physically active as possible, some of them become sedentary for various reasons, including not being able to find a gym that’s well-suited to their needs, McDowell said.

But Frazier’s gym, which is open in the evenings, gives people who’ve recently left therapy a place to be active in a welcoming Environment, said McDowell, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist.

It’s also open to people who have been “living out in the community, maybe 20 years post-injury, and have been waiting for the opportunity to actually be able to utilize a fitness facility where they felt comfortable and felt like that they could actually utilize the equipment,” she said.

The benefits include the common reasons why people exercise, such as weight-control, better muscle tone and general fitness.

“It’s critical that you stay active and you keep moving,” McDowell said. “There’s that saying if you don’t use it, you lose it, and I really believe that.”

But there also are special benefits for people with disabilities such as building on therapy successes and avoiding complications. Sometimes, “you come to therapy and you make all of these gains and then you go home and you sit and other things creep up on you, like skin-care issues or high blood pressure or circulation problems,” if you’re not active, McDowell said.

Extra room and expertise

Sometimes there are just a few pieces of equipment available at a traditional gym that someone who is disabled can use, or there might not be staff available to show them the ropes, McDowell said.

But the Frazier gym is staffed by a team of employees, most of whom have backgrounds in exercise physiology and know how to work with the disabled.

Last week, Reynolds, who has cerebral palsy, sat in her wheelchair, working her upper body with a rowing-type machine called an Ergometer.

Reynolds, a former Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky who lives in Louisville, credits the gym with helping her lose a couple of pounds. Being able to exercise there also has improved her strength and muscle endurance, making it easier for her to transfer out of her wheelchair.

When it comes to the equipment, the staff is “more than willing to help,” she said.

Justin Harris, 25, a wheelchair user who has spina bifida, has been coming to the gym since early January and said, “I definitely feel myself getting stronger.”

One of his favorite pieces of equipment is the NuStep, a recumbent cross-trainer that gives him a good leg workout. Lower-body strength helps him to hold himself up when he needs to stand.

Harris, who lives in Louisville, said he previously belonged to a traditional gym but left because it was too much of a hassle. The old gym was crowded and the equipment was spaced so closely together that it was difficult to navigate in his wheelchair. Frazier’s gym provides ample space to move.

“Having this available helped me out a lot,” said Harris, a member of Hill on Wheels, a Lexington-based team that won the National Wheelchair Division III Basketball Tournament last month in Columbus, Ohio.

Individual attention

At the gym last week, as Harris lifted free weights while sitting in his wheelchair, staff members helped Fust use a locomotor treadmill.

Strapped into a harness, Fust stood on the treadmill while two staff members on either side moved her feet for her. It’s stand and step retraining for Fust, who’s been paralyzed since a spinal cord stroke in January 2006.

Using the special treadmill, which is hooked to a computer, has other potential benefits, such as improving cardiovascular and pulmonary functions.

The treadmill is part of the Frazier Rehab Institute/University of Louisville NeuroRehab Locomotor Training Program funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. And having access to such sophisticated equipment is part of what drew Fust to the gym.

“It’s not only about finding a place that will help me walk again, it’s about finding a place that will help me maintain the improvements and the function that I do get back and maintain my health as much as possible,” she said. “Once you’ve lost everything, getting a little bit back is very important, even if you’re not walking.”

Reporter Darla Carter can be reached at (502) 582-7068.


  1. My daughter was diagnosed with acute TM ( paralyzed from the neck down) July 2007. She is very slowly regaining movements in all areas, howevver, I wish that there was a gym like this one for her to maintain the function that she has already. Physio, both private and through the medical system is definitely not adequate in the toronto area.

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