The sound of clinking weights and cardio machines fills the UMass Amherst Body Shop Fitness Center on a weekday evening. A scan around the room reveals BHMA residential students like Nicole Balise, Catherine Hackett, and Mark Palardy running on treadmills, lifting weights, and doing small agility drills. They are working hard, with looks of determination and satisfaction painted on their glistening faces. BHMA and UMass students are paired together at each activity—symbolizing the broader significance of BHMA’s twice-weekly outings to the fitness center. The Body Shop, described as a teaching lab for Kinesiology students to apply and share their knowledge with the community, gives those at BHMA a chance to access the university in a new way and discover the importance of health and wellness. Initiated by BHMA Residential Director Mike McArdle in the fall of 2017, trips to the Body Shop are the latest iteration of the partnership originally forged between our program and UMass Amherst in 2001. The fitness center expands beyond the primarily social value of the university’s community outreach programs, the Boltwood Project and Best Buddies, to offer education and health-oriented mutual benefits. Kinesiology students have a space to train and connect with people with different abilities—practicing how to tailor their teaching to the individual, how to provide appropriate supports, and how to best relate to diverse segments of the population. Through this unique, collaborative experience, they learn firsthand about creating an inclusive and encouraging fitness environment. BHMA’s individuals thrive in this setting, and in receiving personalized workout strategies that are centered around growing their strengths.
BHMA students complete an individual assessment of their needs and abilities at the beginning of the school year, McArdle details, and their “personal trainer” uses the evaluation to devise a workout plan that supports the student’s goals. For some, the plan may involve general fitness objectives, such as increasing stamina and building muscle. Others could have a more targeted approach that addresses deficits in fine and gross motor skills through specific exercises aimed at improving dexterity. From lateral pulldowns and arc trainers, to squats and stretches, the Kinesiology students model proper techniques and safety, while fostering a meaningful bond between trainer and trainee.They also further the knowledge students acquire in our teaching kitchen––reinforcing the advantages of staying hydrated and eating right, while illustrating how both are sources of fuel that are essential when working out. With raised heartrates and bursts of endorphins, BHMA and UMass students bring the workout plan and the science behind it to life. Through these one-to-one interactions, our individuals develop a strong rapport with their trainer and are integrated into a welcoming fitness setting. BHMA students leave after each session with “a sense of accomplishment and a boost to self-esteem,” writes McArdle. A more enduring impact, however, is realizing the benefits of working out as it relates to the health of their body, mind, and overall well-being. These lessons are a critical part of growing autonomy for individuals with disabilities, allowing them to assert control over their bodies and their lives in an engaging and productive way. The Body Shop provides BHMA and UMass students with an opportunity to learn from each other and promote health and wellness, while empowering them to use fitness as a means of building independence and community.