Like other areas, Central Pennsylvania has dozens of different gyms and fitness centers for people wanting to workout. Some are for serious weightlifters, while others are for more casual exercisers. Virtually all of these firms assume that their members have no special needs, with one notable exception: Fitness 4 Focus.
The mission of Fitness 4 Focus is “to promote a healthier and happier lifestyle through physical activity for individuals with special needs.” That means people can go to Fitness 4 Focus and receive individualized instruction from coaches who are specially equipped to design workout sessions for persons with physical and mental disabilities. The coaches confer with their clients and their parents to set goals and develop personalized fitness plans to improve cognitive ability, hand-eye coordination, and strength.
One Fitness 4 Focus client is a young man named Alexander who has several intellectual disabilities, in addition to being blind, autistic, and epileptic. While most of us can find many less-than-compelling reasons to avoid a workout (e.g., “I’m feeling tired.”), Alexander eagerly does his, despite his multiple disabilities, largely because Fitness 4 Focus has uniquely equipped him to succeed. Alexander’s story is typical of many other Fitness 4 Focus clients, as testimonials like the following from the firm’s website support:
"Fitness 4 Focus is an amazing resource for families in the autism community of Central PA! My daughter is too sensory sensitive for organized sports and even Special Olympics was too stimulating. Chris Russell and his team know autism, have the kindness and patience to keep encouraging my daughter even on her bad days at F4F!” – Jen K
“Since starting F4F one year ago Chase has improved his agility, endurance, strength and most importantly his confidence. He looks forward to seeing Coach Chris every week and for the first time ever he doesn’t ‘fight’ therapy! – Sarah R
"I cannot recommend Fitness 4 Focus enough. This is one thing Caden looks forward to going to every week and yet I could never get him to exercise with me before. He loves working on his muscles and I love the improved confidence and independence I see in him. We use Fitness 4 Focus in place of physical therapy as it is refreshing to be out of a clinical setting and much more motivating to Caden." – Jessica C
"At Fitness 4 Focus, they work with Bryan and he has gained confidence and flexibility plus strength, and is both healthier and happier now that he has a place to go to work out the only way possible for him, given his multiple special needs and behaviors.... There is no other place to go for this kind of attention to such a vast array of needs.” – Patty D
Given my limited experience working with people with special needs, I wanted to talk with someone who could offer a more expert evaluation of Fitness 4 Focus, so I contacted my friend Dannie who has an adult child with Down syndrome. I shared with Dannie an article on PennLive.com that provides a brief overview of the business. After learning a little about Fitness 4 Focus, Dannie offered the following input:
“It's a great idea and I applaud the owners for doing this. While it's great to be integrated [like the typical gym], people with special needs do have ‘special needs.’ Their bodies are built differently than yours and mine and develop in different ways.”
Notwithstanding his enthusiastic endorsement, Dannie did also caution that when working with individuals with special needs, you must “deal with the whole person; not just their physical development.” He went on to explain, “I think the #1 ‘need’ is psychological and I would be greatly concerned that the personal trainers be supplemented with specialists who can deal with the behavior ‘needs’ of the clients and not just the physical.”
Dannie’s point about working with the whole person is sound advice, in a special needs context or any other circumstance. There’s no clear indication on the Fitness 4 Focus website that it employs separate behavioral specialists; however; the parent testimonials shared above do support that the firm’s clients are developing in more than just physical ways. For instance, three of the four parents mention improved confidence, one says that her son is happier, and another described increased independence. These are encouraging outcomes that do suggest that the Fitness 4 Focus staff functions on more than just a physical level.
So, people with special needs can benefit from a specialized gym, but does such a business really have long-term potential, or is it a forever niche market for kind-hearted do-gooders? According to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau study, 19% of the population, or nearly one in five people, has a disability, and half of those people say their disability is “severe.” Furthermore, TheInclusiveChurch.com reports that 2% of children have autism, 8% have a learning disability, and 14% have a developmental disability.
So, although the special needs population is diverse, it’s much bigger than a niche market, even if only a portion of its members want a specialized gym experience. Fitness 4 Focus has seen this potential and grown its operations from one location to three in only a few years, and that’s just the beginning, according to Founder and CEO Chris Russell. He would “love to see one of these on a corner in every town” in order to “strengthen people and make them healthier.”
Despite their large numbers, people with special needs sadly are often an underappreciated and overlooked market. Consequently, finding viable business solutions to serve them both creates stakeholder value and supports societal values, such as fairness and respect. Fitness 4 Focus is at the forefront of this movement and an excellent example of “Mindful Marketing.”
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