COLUMBUS, Ohio — During 25 years as an adapted physical education teacher, Peggy Mills noticed that when her students with disabilities graduated from school and entered adulthood it was difficult for them to find a place to work out.

“There is not much out there afterwards to help them become healthy,” she said.

The scarcity motivated her to launch a three-week fitness program last year at Training Grounds, a local gym.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The program, called Unique Fitness and Individualized Training (UFIT), was created to help people with neurological, developmental or physical challenges stay fit. Beginning with seven people, it quickly grew to more than 20, prompting Mills to look for a larger space.

In March, with the help of her husband, Tim, Mills opened her own gym in Dublin, a Columbus suburb.

While some gyms have programs for people with disabilities, Mills said hers is the only one in the area that caters to their specific fitness needs.

Obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 58 percent higher than for adults without disabilities, and 38 percent higher for children with disabilities than for children without disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inactivity due to limited access to adapted gyms or recreational opportunities contributes to the obesity rate, said John Wysocki, vice president of sports and programs for Special Olympics Ohio.

“Focusing on their health and wellness helps people with disabilities build muscle and endurance while also building social relationships with people,” Wysocki said.

Mills said her gym follows a three-prong approach — customization, empowerment and visual training — and offers special equipment, adapted exercises and specialized instruction to meet everyone’s unique needs and interests.

For example, the use of a “visual fitness board,” allows people to select different exercises for their workout, she said.

Since most clients are visual learners, Mills said, the board helps clients gain confidence because they come in already knowing what to do. In a more traditional gym, by comparison, clients might become confused because they’re not shown what to do, she added.

“It’s comfortable here and not overwhelming like regular gyms,” she said.

Mills didn’t start working with people with disabilities until 1990 when a Dublin school administrator asked her to incorporate their needs into her gym classes.

At first she refused. “I felt like I didn’t know enough to train them,” she said.

However, after teaching a class of eight students, Mills said she became hooked. She pursued a master’s degree in adapted physical education at Ohio State University and became a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Lori Reynolds of Dublin credits UFIT for helping her 15-year-old son, Jack — who has autism and tetralogy of fallot, a complex birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart — continue to stay fit.

“Because of this program, he is a lot more willing to try new things,” she said, adding that it has also helped him gain a sense of confidence and perseverance.

Lindsay Gantzer, 36, of Dublin, who has Down syndrome, works out and volunteers at the gym because it makes her feel like she is a part of the community.

Gantzer said Mills was her physical education teacher in elementary school, and she loves how Mills makes workouts both challenging and fun.

“This gym has become a part of me,” Gantzer said.

© 2018 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC