If you don't have your health, you don't have much.
Physical fitness provides a crucial buffer against injury and illness to humans as they age. In contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at least 80 percent of Americans don't meet national guidelines for physical activity.
That includes both adults and adolescents, many who have nothing holding them back from meeting an hour or two of activity a day.
So what happens when there are barriers to traditional physical exercise? How does someone who spends 12 hours a day in a wheelchair, or someone who spends 24 hours a day as a single parent of three, meet those guidelines?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that around 20 percent of Americans live with some type of disability, or difficulty with certain physically or mentally demanding processes. Those difficulties can be constraining when it comes to achieving physical and mental wellness goals.
Access to adequate nutrition, shelter and education are basic rights of those living in West Michigan, and access to physical fitness is no different. More so now than ever before, individuals of differing ability and resources are able to access opportunities for physical fitness. Not just through new community facilities near a Rapid bus line, but through standards in building design practices.
The cost of a monthly gym membership, or even the transportation to and from the facility, can exclude some families and individuals from access. But not every club charges a fee.
The Be Well Center, at 336 Hall St SE, provides a free space for women of any culture, race, or economic ability to use in "encouraging and strengthening one another towards spiritual and physical health."
Kettlebells are some of the many resources free to use at the Be Well Center.
The faith-based organization encourages all women to come, with classes open to all levels of fitness, says director Karen Jen. Classes like "Holy Yoga," "Tone up Fitness" and open gym time with a personal trainer are available free for drop-in participation during open hours.
The only limitation to participation is the capacity of Be Well's walls, which is a key benefit to some. An expansive gym filled with every weight machine and cardio station can be intimidating, and Be Well's more intimate quarters make it easy to adjust the difficulty of classes based on the fitness level of those who attend.
Jen has spent the last 35 years as a registered nurse. Having worked in a doctor's office, in home care positions, and in a number of hospital roles, she's an active member of the Madison Square church, and has a strong interest in nutrition. She's spent an equal amount of life as a runner, and is a certified Holy Yoga instructor, incorporating elements of the Christian faith into yoga's breath work, meditation and physical postures.
It's primarily those last few areas of expertise that she draws on when leading others in physical exercise classes at Be Well, where she's spent the last five and a half years.
The classes Jen facilitates are free from judgement and pressure. She says she measures Be Well's success in terms of "numbers of attendees, self reports of wellness, doctor's good reports, and the smiles and deepening friendships."
Be Well is volunteer operated and managed, relying on grants and donors to keep its doors open, as well as collaboration with other nonprofits. The center has great value as a physical fitness resource for those with limited financial means, but this model is not without its own obstacles.
The center is open from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday, and various one-hour periods on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, which can be difficult to schedule. And, being located in the Brace Twine & Supply Co. building, a relic of the industrial revolution, the facility wasn't exactly built with the specifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act in mind.
Marketing is another challenge the center faces. Getting the word out is a need for any service organization. Be Well relies on sharing the success stories of those who participate, and a group of committed and compassionate followers on social media.
Other facilities in town face the same challenges, and have made other unique marketing decisions.
You may have seen them.
More than one stretch of West Michigan interstate is lit by billboard signage focusing on a single letter. The YMCA has had a presence in Grand Rapids since 1866 and is one of the most recognizable symbols of physical fitness in the world.
But the world is a big place, and not every Y is the same. There are nine YMCAs in West Michigan, and Grand Rapids is home to two: the David D. Hunting YMCA at 475 Lake Michigan Drive NW and the Mary Free Bed location at 5500 Burton Street SE.
Likely more people drive by the David D. Hunting branch, traveling down U.S. 131, but it's the Mary Free Bed facility, opened in December 2015, that has garnered international attention.
The Mary Free Bed YMCA is the first building in the world to receive the Universal Design award from Syracuse University.
"That's been a pretty big deal," says Teri Burgess-Brown, senior health and wellness director of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and the health and wellness director at the Mary Free Bed YMCA, where she directly oversees the personal trainers, health and wellness coaches, and group fitness instructors. "We've had people come to tour the Y from places all over the United States, just to see not only the building, but the work that we're doing here."
To the average visitor, the workout space may seem no different than any other gym, Burgess-Brown says, save a more diverse collection of people with varying abilities using the equipment, and that's the beauty of the facility's design. There isn't a difference between the way people of differing ability can access opportunities for wellness.
There are transfer platforms at the YMCA to help those who need to move in and out of a wheelchair use the facility independently. A wheelchair storage room helps wheelchair rugby, basketball and baseball athletes store their sport chairs, and avoid dragging them through the snow.
The emphasis on inclusion transcends physical barriers, reaching to eliminate emotional barriers, just as well.
"We just really focused on breaking down barriers in order to help people," Burgess-Brown says. "This goes way beyond being ADA compliant and takes into consideration the emotional aspect. We don't have stairs to get from the first to the second floor; we have a huge ramp. If you and I were coming to work out together and I used a wheelchair and you didn't, normally, you would go down the stairs and I would wait for an elevator. This way, we can carry our conversation and carry our connection emotionally."
The Be Well Center has space for yoga and other activity classes.
Hearing loops are a technology installed in audio systems that can work in the background, communicating with parts in nearby hearing aids to generate clearer sound. The YMCA has installed them in individual meeting rooms to optimize the sound for each listener's personal hearing loss and needs. in some of the group meeting rooms help individuals with hearing difficulties maintain a connection with the activity coordinator, the doorways have been widened, and the floors are free of transition strips, allowing for a much more comfortable experience for those who roll through the front door, rather than walk.
"It's done in a very creative and pleasing architectural way that doesn't jump out at you," Burgess-Brown says. "It doesn't look obtrusive or unusual. We're pretty thankful to be part of that environment so that all people to maintain a healthy lifestyle, not just those that can walk in our doors."
Admission to the Y isn’t free, but flexible pricing plans and financial assistance are available to help any individual or family with an annual income of less than $65,000 work on their wellness goals. It’s another barrier to access redesigned for inclusivity.
Burgess-Brown has a number of certifications in the health and fitness industry. From personal training to yoga, to arthritis, prenatal and postpartum care, as well as YMCA's specialty certifications like cycling, "Body Pump," "RPM" and pilates. Her educational background is in business and management, but she's been in the fitness industry for about 25 years.
Like her, some of the trainers at the YMCA have higher level certifications in corrective therapies. There's an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and a recreational therapist on staff, as well as a personal trainers.
"Their knowledge and skill set is more inclusive than your typical trainer who studies kinesiology and anatomy and passes the test but really doesn't have the mindset to open beyond what's in the textbook," Burgess-Brown says. "They can explore the possibilities with people, and sometimes people just need a word of encouragement.
"It's not so much about the workout," she continues. "We strive for excellence, but sometimes it's more about the relationship and acceptance."
In a group fitness class, Burgess-Brown may offer as many as 20 different variations of an exercise because there are people of so many different abilities in attendance.
"About a month ago I rolled a gal using a wheelchair Into a Body Pump class. Our members welcomed her right in, and typically body pump isn't a class a person own a wheelchair could do," she says. "She could get out of her wheelchair and do some of the floor abdominal and back strengthening exercises, then sat in her wheelchair and did the upper body things."
The instructor helped with a few adjustments while the other members continued their exercise. It's not something you see in this industry, Burgess-Brown says, and that has been the key to making the YMCA more inclusive.
"We're training clients that have no legs. We're training clients that are post stroke, clients that have had another traumatic injury, and yet, we're training middle-aged women that want to lose weight, older men that had a heart attack, kids that want to make the soccer team and everybody in between," she says. "We're not putting up walls and saying, 'You're in a wheelchair so I can't do the normal routine that I do with every other client.' We're not doing that here. We're really just saying, 'Let's explore.'"
And explore they do, partly thanks to the innovative design by Michael Perry at Progressive AE, but more importantly thanks to the feedback of the differently-abled members who use the space every day.
"What it really comes down to is staff training and acceptance," Burgess-Brown says. "Making sure that the message that we are giving our staff, and that we also hold and carry, is that it doesn't matter what people can't do. We really need to focus on what people can do."
At the Mary Free Bed YMCA, and others across the world, it's not just differences in capability that are respected and acknowledged, but differences in feasibility.
And there are countless reasons why someone without physical disabilities may find themselves straining to focus on physical fitness, too, Burgess-Brown says. But, beating yourself up over it isn't going to burn any more calories.
Burgess-Brown says her approach, and the mission of the YMCA, is to partner with individuals to get them to better place of acceptance.
"When we're there, emotionally, we're going to have better outcome. We're going to have less cortisol, and less stress. We're going to feel more accomplished when we do get a really intense crazy workout, or when we do put on those pair of pants and they fit better," she says. "It's not that we're not results driven. That can motivate people and some people need that. We also want to say, 'Hey, you had three sick kids this week and you only came once, that's OK. At least you came once. That's better than not at all.'
"People come in with lots of guilt and that doesn't help them be healthy inside or out."
And there's no doubt people need help. Half of all adults within the U.S. are projected to be obese by 2030, resulting in 6 to 8.5 million cases of diabetes, 5.7 to 7.3 million cases of heart disease and stroke, and around a half million more cases of cancer in both the U.S. and the U.K. The economic responsibility for these projections is in the double-digit billions. And when taking into account the amount of time that's being killed off by these factors, it's estimated that around 55 million years of life will never be lived, as they are cut shorter and shorter by ignored warning signs.
Physical fitness in West Michigan is looking more and more like a community effort, as outdoor Holy Yoga classes, weekly bicycle rides, Veggie Van visits, and neighborhood wellness initiatives have taken shape. Residents in any community will always battle health issues, but in West Michigan, there are more than just a few options.
Access of West Michigan has set forth a mission of tackling poverty in the region through faith-based methods, guiding community members toward healthier lives in the process. Nancy Veldkamp-Brubaker, program manager for Access’ Nutritional Options for Wellness (NOW) program, has been striving to help others live their healthiest lives for the last 35 years as a registered nurse, specializing in home healthcare and community nursing. Through all her years as a healthcare practitioner, Veldkamp-Brubaker has heard one worry ring out above all others.
“I’ve spent my life hearing from individuals who are really ill and at a place in their life they didn't expect to be, say to me, ‘If I had only known about healthier choices, my life would have been different.’”
She made a point to use that knowledge in her own lifestyle, and has urged others to adopt healthier habits, so the same realization doesn’t come too late.
In the NOW program, Veldkamp-Brubaker helps connect individuals to nutritious food and wellness plans made possible by a grant through Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities program. NOW receives funding for 115 participants who receive nutritious weekly food support and a number of other benefits, in exchange for completing Good Food Systems classes led by instructors from the YMCA, the MSU Extension and other community-conscious wellness organizations.
The program targets underserved populations, particularly those suffering from chronic heart disease, diabetes or renal disease, with the hope of providing the support and guidance needed to make some life-changing decisions.
And so far, it’s been a success.
NOW is still compiling its numbers from 2017, but Veldkamp-Brubaker maintains the program’s 2016 surveys came back with 96 percent of participants reporting that they were eating more fruits and vegetables, and cooking healthier foods for their families and friends. A similarly high percentage reported that they felt more confident managing their chronic disease and found value in the community that developed around their cohort.
And along with healthier choices, those who have gone through the NOW program are finding healthier results. About 65 to 70 percent of NOW participants reported that they were using ERs less, making fewer and shorter hospital stays, and needed to see a primary care physicians less, all because of adhering to healthier lifestyles.
“That's really a driving force of access, to recognize that really all policies we make are health policies in one way or another,” Veldkamp-Brubaker says. “Health care needs to be more preventative and we need to look at the social determinants involved, to really make a difference.”
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio