When a person has a life-altering injury or diagnosis that leads to paralysis, the first question they often ask is “Will I ever walk again?” or “Will my life ever be the same again?” Despite all the medical treatments and technology available today, those questions still can’t be answered for many people. Why? Partially, it’s because of a lack of equitable access and inclusive programming at commercial health clubs and medical fitness centers where people trying to rehabilitate can safely and successfully do so.
It’s time that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts at health clubs include this group of people—and a business case exists for doing so.
Nearly 1.4 million people are living with a spinal cord injury, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. More than 17,000 people sustain spinal cord injuries every year, and they struggle to find a facility to go to once insurance runs out for traditional physical therapy and once they get to the chronic stage of recovery. This is due in large part to the lack of access to fitness programs geared to their needs.
Insurance companies have decided that because currently no cure exists for many of these conditions, these individuals have no need for long-term physical therapy or fitness options despite their risk of secondary complications from their injuries. But people living with these conditions face a long-term battle to try to maintain health and to not be hospitalized because of those secondary complications—complications that often could be prevented or alleviated with exercise.
If able-bodied individuals have the opportunity and option to remain healthy for the duration of their lives, shouldn’t those who are living with unfortunate physical setbacks have that opportunity as well?
The lack of access for this population at most health clubs is not because club operators don’t acknowledge or believe in the idea of creating a diverse club, equitable opportunities and inclusive programming. Instead, much of it is due in part to a lack of awareness about the demographics of people injured and diagnosed with neurological disorders and how to serve this community.
Serving this group may require some internal infrastructural changes and the financial risk might seem daunting, but the outcome would be inclusive programs that can be seamlessly integrated into a health club setting that are not only viable profit centers but also life-changing community-based philanthropic services.
As club owners and operators, you have an obligation to your bottom line for the sake of your staff, board of directors and ownership. What’s more, your job is on the line if you fail. But what if you took a leap of faith or a considered risk? You might find that you made money by “accident.”
This was the case with Mike Alpert, the former president, and CEO of The Claremont Club, in Southern California. He began working with the paralysis community as a club operator in Oregon when he worked with a five-year-old who had spinal bifida. Seeing the impact that he and the club had on the quality of her life changed his philosophy about being inclusive of this community. Later in the early 2000s, Alpert resurrected his vision of inclusive programming at The Claremont Club where he changed the whole culture and complexity of the large health club forever. For the better.
Alpert expanded The Claremont Club’s programming to include several groups of people who were experiencing health challenges, including cancer. More than 1,300 women and their families experienced life-changing results through the club’s Living Well After Cancer program. Others’ lives were changed through a diabetes program and the Cycling for Parkinson’s program.
The flagship inclusive program at the club was tailored to people with neurological disorders (spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, transverse myelitis, spina bifida, and more). Today, it is called The Perfect Step (TPS).
This program came about after I, as a 17-year-old native to the Claremont community, endured a spinal cord injury in 2007. Alpert saw an opportunity to give back. He was compelled to support my family, whom he had a connection with through his daughter, Justene, as she was a friend of mine. As an athlete, I wanted high-performance training to be a part of my recovery.
Once I reached the chronic stage of recovery, I struggled to find a place with credible practitioners who were knowledgeable in my neurological setback. However, The Claremont Club and a group of their trainers who showed a willingness to pursue continued education gave me the opportunity to be back in the four walls where I grew up so I could improve my physical state. In doing so, they validated the importance of community and support.
Many operators may be concerned about paying for programs that draw in this community. For the Claremont Club, the investments in these programs originally were funded by the bottom line of the business. Diluting program-related expenses among other departments throughout the club created for immediate balance and stability of the program’s growth, ultimately creating revenues of nearly $900,000 and net profits north of $200,000 (year after year) after five years. These numbers showed how a program like this could be seamlessly integrated into a commercial health club or medical fitness center and provide long-lasting success with financial fruitfulness.
Alpert made money by accident, just by doing the right thing. And the money came in ways not directly related to the programs. He began noticing that his membership attrition rate dropped from 21 percent to under 15 percent. When he tried to determine the reason for the attrition decline, he asked members what they liked about the club. They all mentioned the club had a sense of shared values that they wanted to teach their kids about—helping people who need support.
It was this leap of faith by Alpert and his team that changed my life forever. Many people who live with chronic injuries and chronic illnesses suffer from secondary complications in relation to their injuries and diagnosis that could result in re-hospitalization. Much like others who participate in exercise, I saw an immediate reduction in my secondary health complications for things like bladder infections, pressure sores, bone density setbacks, blood pressure regulation, body weight fluctuation, better bowel movements, a better quality of life and an outlook on life that made me feel able rather than disabled.
I began to wonder, what if everybody else in my situation had access to a program like this? What could their outcomes be? Rather than talk about it, I committed to change and action by going back to school and getting both my undergraduate and master’s degree so I could take that education to better serve those in need. I realized that the program at The Claremont Club did not just serve my physical recovery, but it also mentally and emotionally changed me. I realized that the only limitation to where I wanted to be in life was my own perspective of myself.
A program that started in a 700-square-foot racquetball court with one initial client has now grown to over 7,000 square feet at its current standalone flagship location in Southern California with more than 100 clients in the program. One hundred clients who have few other places to go for their fitness needs.
So, you may be a champion of DEI, but are you prepared to be a pioneer in this area of DEI? We have never seen a more vital time in human history to create a marriage between the medical field and the fitness industry, while also bridging the gap to those who are chronically ill and chronically injured. Are you prepared to do more than just widen doorways and come up to ADA code? Are you prepared to be known as a facility that is home to all in your local community and region? It’s an opportunity to differentiate your business and reach out to a group of people not often marketed to but in need of your services.
Hal Hargrave is president and CEO of The Perfect Step, which offers a turn-key solution that seamlessly integrates into commercial health clubs and medical fitness centers, creating net profits. Hargrave has an educational background in leadership and management and has been a part of running and operating a paralysis recovery center since 2007. Alongside Ashton Wray, Hargrave has been responsible for developing one of the most robust continuing education programs in the country tailored toward educating those who are interested in learning about best practices to treat those with neurological disorders. Additionally, Hargrave is the executive director of The Be Perfect Foundation, which is a foundation that raises funds for medical-based needs for those living with paralysis and neurological setbacks. The foundation has raised more than $8 million during the past 15 years for those living with paralysis with nearly 100 percent of those dollars going directly back to program services and those in need.
Ashton Wray is director of education and staff development of The Perfect Step. Wray has an educational background in integrative physiology and has been responsible for the training and development of staff at The Perfect Step for the past five years. Because of the physical successes that she has seen through creative innovation in her clients, as well as more than 8,000 hours of hands-on experience in the field, Wray is one of the premier trainers in the world that can provide knowledge and education to others who are getting newly trained. Wray has been responsible for the development and creation of a robust certification program that is now getting national recognition.