Adapted Fitness changing the perception of what’s possible

One pillar of the Impact 2030 initiative centers on the UW–Madison School of Education’s commitment to providing transformational and innovative learning experiences for students.

The Adapted Fitness program run through the Department of Kinesiology is an example of how faculty and staff across the School are innovating beyond the classroom walls, while also educating and empowering students to be equity-oriented agents of change.

Tim Gattenby
Distinguished Faculty Associate Tim Gattenby, who heads the Adapted Fitness program, has spent more than three decades helping people with a range of abilities find new and innovative ways to stay active.

Led by Distinguished Faculty Associate Tim Gattenby, the program helps individuals from the community with a range of disabilities establish a healthier lifestyle, become more independent, enhance functional fitness, and participate in sports and other recreational activities. The Adapted Fitness and Personal Training classes offered through the Department of Kinesiology serve a diverse population — including clients with permanent and temporary disabilities, as well as individuals who are interested in weight loss and stress management.

To serve its roughly 90 clients, Gattenby and his colleagues train and utilize more than 250 UW-Madison student volunteers who are essential to the success of the program. Each client the program serves works closely with two to four students, forming a “fitness team.”

According to federal reports, about one in five Americans have some type of disability, with mobility issues being the most common form. People with mobility restrictions can face an especially difficult time staying active due to transportation limitations, architectural barriers, discriminatory policies and practices, and societal attitudes, to name a few obstacles.

“We are training students in kinesiology who are going to go on to medical school or be physician assistants, and occupational and physical therapists — and this experience is opening their eyes to what is possible for their patients,” says Gattenby, who has spent more than three decades helping people with a range of abilities find new and innovative ways to stay active. “Our program shows students the importance of not setting limitations. They come out of this coursework with a very different philosophy and attitude toward working with people with disabilities.”

Gattenby adds that while many students begin helping with the Adapted Fitness program through a service-learning course — many remain involved throughout their time on campus as volunteers.

As part of the School’s Impact 2030 initiative, UW–Madison alumni Ginny (1978 physical education) and Mike (1978 engineering) Conway made a generous major gift to make sure the Adapted Fitness program will have dedicated space in the new UW Natatorium, which is scheduled to open in 2023 following the demolition of the current Nat this fall. The Conways are passionate about the work being done by Gattenby and his colleagues, and this support — plus generous backing from the university — will assure there is a new, state-of-the-art Adapted Fitness space that will not only better serve clients from the community, but continue to provide incredible training and leadership experiences for students.

Students helping a client in the Adapted Fitness program
Students work with clients of the Adapted Fitness program in “fitness teams” of two to four students with each person. “Our program shows students the importance of not setting limitations,” says Tim Gattenby, who coordinates Adapted Fitness and Personal Training for the Department of Kinesiology. “They come out of this coursework with a very different philosophy and attitude toward working with people with disabilities.”

During more typical times, and depending on the individual client’s needs, interests, and goals, student volunteers help with tasks such as: transferring people to and from equipment; facilitating strength training, aerobic exercise, stretching, gait, balance, and fine and gross motor movements; and engaging in sport and recreational activities such as cross country sit-skiing in the winter, adapted biking in the summer, bean bag toss, shooting hoops, and more. While volunteers involved with the program come from across campus, most are students pursuing degrees with the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, or Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education.

“All of my student team volunteers are pretty impressive and honestly, give me a lot of hope and solace that the upcoming generations have such heart and passion for helping others,” says Keith Johnston, a client of the Adapted Fitness program. “I think many of the students are wired this way but may not really know how to channel their heart, soul, attitude, and abilities to benefit others. This is where Tim Gattenby and his team come in to help provide some tangible and intangible training to these students, instilling them with passion and a sense of urgency — in addition to formal training. They, and we, all benefit from this.”

Until the disruptive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic created new realities for people across the world, all the previous work conducted by Gattenby and his students over the years was done in face-to-face settings, typically at the UW Natatorium. Given the fact that many of the clients who participate in the Adapted Fitness program are immune suppressed or otherwise at heightened risk due to underlying conditions, Gattenby started planning for ways to keep things running even before Gov. Tony Evers announced the state’s Safer at Home Order on March 16.

In early March, each “fitness team” — comprised of one client and two to four student volunteers — made plans for distance learning in the form of at-home exercise programs. So while everyone was still able to meet in person, students and clients shared emails, and/or phone numbers — and talked over different methods of staying connected. For clients lacking equipment at home, the program offered them resistance bands.

Autumn Nuegent participates in chair yoga online
Autumn Neugent, a longtime participant in the Adapted Fitness program, leads a virtual chair yoga class in April while meeting in person on campus was not possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The students helping with the Adapted Fitness classes gain such a better understanding of people with diverse abilities and people in general. The Adapted Fitness program is both a physical and emotional support for all of us.”

On March 17, UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced that the remainder of the spring semester would shift to an alternate delivery mode of classes, while most of campus was shut down and off limits. During that week of spring break, March 16 to 20, the Adapted Fitness team relied heavily on Maria Widmer — an instructional designer with the School of Education’s Office of Media, Education Resources, and Information Technology (MERIT) — to develop an instructional site via Canvas, the university’s online learning management system. In addition, Anne Niendorf, associate student services coordinator from with the Division of Continuing Studies’ Office of Adult Career and Special Student Services, was instrumental in helping Adapted Fitness clients and their family members/caregivers get connected to Canvas.

“Although Canvas was not a resource we had previously used due to the in-person nature of our work, we really saw it as an invaluable tool for facilitating and staying connected to our student volunteers and clients,” says Kecia Doyle, a PhD candidate with the Department of Kinesiology who assists with the program and led the development of the Canvas site.

The Canvas site was launched on March 23 and in short order, nearly 250 students had been mobilized to continue providing meaningful outreach from a distance to 90 Adapted Fitness clients during a pandemic. The new Canvas site initially featured: modules with tips for stress relief and staying healthy during the COVID-19 crisis; ideas for staying connected to clients through university-supported technology; and Google docs for things like exercise logs, service learning forms, and discussion boards.

Depending on a client’s needs and interests, and access to technology, outreach from students while COVID-19 safety measures were in place could be as simple as a text message to send a friendly reminder to exercise. Other connections were made via an e-mail with an attachment detailing exercises with photos. Or it could be a phone call check-in or a web conference to exercise together virtually. Some clients have additionally been encouraging each other to exercise in a virtual class setting through Google Hangouts — with one day dedicated to martial arts, another to upper body exercises, then lower body exercises, and seated yoga. Student volunteers also joined in on those classes, both to participate and offer suggestions.

Kecia Doyle
Kecia Doyle, a PhD candidate with the Department of Kinesiology, led the development of a Canvas site for the Adapted Fitness program. “When we first realized we’d have to forego the in-person open house, it was a big disappointment,” says Doyle Greene. “But being able to deliver a virtual version of the celebration really turned out to be a boon to everyone’s morale.”

“My student volunteers have been terrific on follow-ups and we have video calls at least weekly, and sometimes twice per week during class time,” says Johnston. “The workouts that have been jointly created have been modified based on detailed feedback from me, and I think we have a solid regimen. This is important to me because about the only way that I’ve been able to work out and endeavor to get stronger was through structure and routine — all of which are gone due to the coronavirus. Having a plan gets me off my butt.”

The Adapted Fitness program in April also used Canvas to successfully host its annual open house — which is typically a large, in-person event and celebration for clients and students.

“When we first realized we’d have to forego the in-person open house, it was a big disappointment,” says Doyle. “But being able to deliver a virtual version of the celebration really turned out to be a boon to everyone’s morale.”

Adds Gattenby: “We are extremely proud of and very appreciative of the clients and the students for all the extra work and time they have been putting into this distance learning approach to Adapted Fitness. Not only have we done what we do best — which is to adapt and overcome — but we have maintained our philosophy that we are not living by the perception of limitations.

“I’ve seen lots of negative press about education faltering due to the distance learning methods that we have adapted to. I believe that we are actually doing the opposite and thriving as instructors and students.”

Another positive to come out of being forced to move its efforts online is that the Adapted Fitness program plans to continue using Canvas — and adding more instructional content and resources — even when it’s safe for all to return to campus and begin meeting again in person.

“Change is always difficult,” says Doyle. “But change is also motivating and inspiring, and helps us learn and rise to challenges. In the end, we became better at what we do.”