The Future of Fitness — Making Movement More Inclusive
by Catherine Morris | May 25, 2021, updated almost 2 years ago
For professional fitness trainer Megan Williamson (BA, NASM, CPT) inclusive fitness isn't a trend, it's the only way forward, and the reason she does what she does.
Owner and head operator of Ocean Rehab and Fitness, Megan works mainly with people who have sustained spinal cord injuries, and those with multiple sclerosis (MS). She shows these clients that they can improve their fitness and attain their health goals, regardless of their physical disabilities.
“Fitness is for anybody. It doesn't matter what your abilities are—whether you're a quadriplegic or bed-bound—there is something you can do. It may look different for everybody but there's no reason someone should be left behind.”
Bridging the Gap
Clients come to Megan and other disability aware practitioners for all sorts of reasons, and with all sorts of conditions.
Parkinson's, cerebral palsy, MS, spinal cord injuries, arthritis – these clients have their own specific needs and goals, but one thing they often have in common is a fear of the gym.
“A lot of people don't feel comfortable going to public places to workout,” says Megan. “There's a lot of insecurity and they feel self-conscious. If there's someone in a wheelchair at the gym, people are going to look at them. It's not an inclusive space yet, that's not the norm.”
This lack of awareness in gyms and other spaces extends even to patient care, according to Megan who adds—
“People with physical disabilities aren't really taught about fitness. They're given acute care, but there's not a whole lot out there on everyday fitness. People don't really know where to start, and they are scared of hurting themselves.
“We need to bridge that gap.”
It's tough to make fitness more accessible when most movement practitioners don't have the know-how or skills to properly serve the disabled community.
When Megan launched Ocean Rehab six years ago, it was in response to an overwhelming demand for her services. Being one of the few disability aware trainers, she found herself inundated with work. Rather than seeing that as a positive, she believes it's a sign that there's a problem.
“It's quite niche to specialize in training people with physical disabilities. There is not a lot of training offered for practitioners yet, so my goal is to bring more awareness to it. I want people to realize that this is something they need to be ready for, and that it can grow their business and expand their client base.
“I want to give trainers the confidence to do that and I want more opportunities for people with disabilities to get that direction and not feel like they will get hurt.”
So, what does it take to be a 'disability-aware' practitioner? According to Megan there are several key areas that practitioners should address if they want to create a more inclusive environment.
“Practitioners should have a fully accessible workplace. They should be using inclusive language to make sure everybody feels accepted. They also need a basic knowledge of how to adapt their services to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, or a walker.”
Inclusive Fitness Needs Inclusive Training
After more than a decade in the field, Megan is now on a mission to spread the word about fitness accessibility. She’s developed the 'Breaking Barriers' course to teach trainers, kinesiologists, and other fitness professionals how to accommodate clients with physical disabilities.
Delivered online through virtual classes, the course can be used as a continuing education unit (CEU) or continuing education credit (CEC) towards recertification. It gives practitioners the tools they need to broaden their skill set, reach more clients, and be part of the fitness inclusion movement.
“The course gives practitioners a foundation of how to work with specific disabilities,” says Megan. “We focus on symptoms, assessment, language, safety—it's about empowering them to approach someone with a physical disability and create a safe space for them.”
Breaking Barriers also covers international exercise guidelines for different disabilities and a special segment on supporting Long Covid patients through their recovery.
It was especially important for Megan to include the latter module as the fitness community is only just beginning to understand the long-term repercussions of the pandemic. Long Covid patients may not have visible physical disabilities, but they still require very specialized care.
“As a fitness professional, if you get a Covid long hauler you can't just treat them like a normal, healthy person. It's super important to know how to work with that. Covid is a new thing, it's a new aspect of inclusion.”
A Growing Movement
Before Megan began Ocean Fitness, she'd already enjoyed a long career in the fitness industry. Trained as a professional dancer, she moved into personal training and then adaptive fitness coaching.
At one point, Megan considered going into physiotherapy, but when her schedule began filling up with disabled clients seeking out her expertise she realized she could do more good elsewhere.
Now she can't see herself doing anything else,
“I committed [to working with disabled clients] and I've never looked back. Fitness inclusion is very new. It is slow moving, but if you look at the history of inclusion there has been some progress. I think the more awareness we get, and the more of those little changes we make, the more we'll see a huge impact in accessibility.
“I see it changing in my lifetime and I’m devoting my life to helping things change.”
If you're interested in learning more about Breaking Barriers, check out Megan's Q&A where she explains how it can help you build your business and expand your services. To book your place on the course, view the details and schedule here.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.