​University of Michigan's Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program Makes Physical Activity Accessible for Everyone

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on September 28, 2021 # Quality of Life Grant Spotlight, Team Reeve

University of Michigan  Adaptive Sports and Fitness Team

The 2nd annual Reeve Run & Roll virtual 5K will take Team Reeve globetrotting from kick-off September 25, 2021, through October 3, 2021. Participants of all athletic abilities will join to run, roll, cycle, swim, surf, dribble, walk and so much more.

Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness

Exercise is among the most powerful prescriptions in medicine. Regular physical activity not only enhances your physical health but also has far-reaching effects on your social, emotional, and mental health. In fact, studies suggest that exercise can produce marked health benefits on par with certain prescription medications.

The trouble is, not everyone has equitable access to the space, equipment, and supports needed to exercise. "There's a gap in access to physical activity between people with disabilities and able-bodied people – despite the known benefits for all populations," says Erik Robeznieks, M.B.A., Assistant Director of Adaptive Sports and Fitness at the University of Michigan. Through the Christopher & Dana Christopher Reeve Foundation's Quality of Life Grants, University of Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness aims to bridge that gap.

The Importance of Physical Activity

Sports and physical activity offer a way for people to acquire transferable skills. Engaging in exercise helps you develop and strengthen the muscles required to perform activities of daily living such as bathing, cleaning and cooking. For people who live with a physical disability or paralysis, developing these independent life skills is paramount.

"When you don’t have the opportunity or ability to maintain optimal physical fitness, performing basic tasks requires you to expend a lot more energy," Robezniek says. "It also inhibits your ability to integrate with the community and be an active member of society." Over time, those factors build on each other in a way that demotivates people.

Studies show that people with physical limitations and disabilities are at increased risk of muscle loss. They're also more vulnerable to the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Often, people living with paralysis don't want to be inactive; they just don't know where to begin. Robeznieks' goal is to pave the way forward through his work with the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program at the University of Michigan.

University of Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness GymRemoving Barriers to Physical Activity

In partnership with the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living and with support from the Reeve Foundation's Quality of Life Grants and the Adam Miller Family, University of Michigan Adaptive Sports & Fitness has created an environment that supports and encourages physical activity for everyone, whether they're able-bodied or paralyzed. To achieve that objective, Robeznieks' team focused on two key factors:

  1. Accessibility. Most fitness centers are built for able-bodied individuals with space configuration and equipment that isn't easy to manipulate, arrange and interact with if you use a mobility device or if you have limited dexterity, balance, or core function. "Our goal was to create an environment that is physically accessible for everyone by arranging equipment within the physical space that would allow everyone to move around comfortably," Robeznieks says.
  2. Independence. When selecting gym equipment, the team focused on pieces that encourage the development of skills people use outside of the gym. "Activities of daily living rely heavily on hand-eye coordination, balance, reflexes, and range of motion," Robezniek says. "So we selected pieces that had transferable movements or skills that support a person's ability to perform activities of daily living at home and in the community."

Key examples of equipment that meet those criteria include:

  • Boxing bags: Boxing or punching bags require people to move their arms in a forward motion with propulsion while maintaining their balance, which is particularly important for individuals with limited core function. The upshot: "It's great training since they have to engage that same sense of balance when they reach for something in the refrigerator," Robeznieks says.
  • Wide workout benches: The gym features workout benches that are just over one foot wide to accommodate different physical disabilities. The extra width makes a big difference for people with paralysis from a stability and balance perspective.
  • Specialty gloves: The gym comes equipped with specialized "active hands gripping aids" since people who have compromised dexterity may struggle to hold on to traditional free weights. "The gloves wrap around the weight to make it easier for people with paralysis to grip and lift free weights," Robeznieks says.
  • A wheelchair treadmill: During the winter months in Michigan, the safety of the walkway, curb cuts, and seams in the concrete can make wheelchair training an impossibility. The wheelchair treadmill allows people to get that endurance activity in the safety of a gym environment.
  • A weighted conditioning rope: Whipping around a 25-pound conditioning rope requires a lot of grip dexterity and endurance. That dexterity is directly transferable to daily activities that happen outside of the gym. "It's an endurance-based workout that requires people to push their limits while maintaining their balance and controlling their body movements," Robeznieks says.

University of Michigan's Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program built a team of staff, faculty and community members, with and without disabilities, to participate in this year's Reeve Run & Roll. As part of their participation, the University of Michigan is able to showcase their programming, including:

  • Track and field
  • Wheelchair tennis
  • Wheelchair basketball

"All of our programming is free for participants. We open the gym doors, provide equipment, and try to address all of the barriers that exist for participating in sports and engaging in physical activity," Robeznieks says. The goal is to provide everyone — disabled or not — with the tools they need to perform activities of daily living independently.

For the duration of the Reeve Run & Roll, the University of Michigan's Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program is promoting what they do day in and day out to support the access, opportunity, and participation in adaptive sports and fitness for all community members.

There is still time to register for the Reeve Run & Roll and join the team!

Reeve Run & Roll logo

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.