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    Gym makes best of abilities

    Gym makes best of abilities
    New center in Clinton Township makes fitness accessible to everybody, regardless of limitations

    By Tracy Boyd / Special to The Detroit News

    Randell Carver, left, and Christopher Grobbel own Cross Trainers Fitness Forum. Grobbel is paralyzed from the chest down as a result of an auto accident in 1994.

    Trainer Barb Erck, left, helps Elizabeth Hovarter of Harrison Township, who loves the services at this new gym. "The first day I was there, I was thrilled because I saw another person in a wheelchair."

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    CLINTON TOWNSHIP -- Elizabeth Hovarter of Harrison Township is used to people saying stupid things. Recently, a man approached her as she was leaving a restaurant. "I hope you asked for your discount," he said. "After all, you brought your own chair, so you shouldn't be charged full price!"
    "I was astonished," says Hovarter, 58, a partial paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since a March 2000 accident. "It's amazing how cruel and thoughtless people can be."
    So Hovarter was expecting more of the same from a gym she visited.
    "The first day I was there, I was thrilled because I saw another person in a wheelchair," says Hovarter. "To me, that meant there was a chance that people wouldn't stare or say stupid things. I signed up."
    That's only part of the goal of Cross Trainers Fitness Forum. Bright, airy and completely accessible, the facility opened in Clinton Township in January and is seeking clients of all abilities, says co-owner Christopher Grobbel.
    "Many places say they are wheelchair accessible, but they are not wheelchair friendly -- and that's an important distinction," says Grobbel, 41, who is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair as the result of a 1994 auto accident. "Here, we are wide open. It's a very friendly atmosphere, and we can offer access to anyone with any kind of disability."
    The population of people with disabilities is steadily growing. In 1985, approximately 32.5 million people in the United States said their activities were limited by a condition or disease. In 1992, that figure had grown to 37.7 million people, or 15 percent of the population, according to the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California in San Francisco.
    Include the aging baby boomers and the elderly, who often can benefit from the same modifications that help people with disabilities, and it's easy to see that Grobbel's idea has significant merit.
    Billing their business as "quality and service without limits," Grobbel and business partner Randell Carver focus on offering a stimulating, completely accessible fitness atmosphere with state-of-the-art equipment and superb customer service.

    'No stares'
    Grobbel, an entrepreneur who began his first business at age 24, and Carver, a personal trainer, searched for months for the right venue. They found a space that was large and airy, and decorated it with geometric blocks and primary colors. Natural light is abundant. A second-floor balcony holds treadmills, bikes and a short track that looks over weight machines below. Everything is accessible, from the elevator to the nonskid flooring materials to the wide aisles around $250,000 worth of workout equipment.
    The best part, says Grobbel, is able-bodied and disabled patrons work out together, with no stares or whispered comments.
    "I absolutely love going," says Hovarter. "I go three days a week and train with a personal trainer. It's such a great atmosphere -- very inspirational and friendly."
    Currently, about 10 percent of the gym's clientele has a disability. Eventually, Grobbel would like to see that figure rise to 25 percent. Since the gym opened in January, about 800 members have signed up.
    "I think everyone here can gain something from everyone else," says Tim Steinbrink, the club's disability fitness coordinator. Steinbrink, who has used a wheelchair for 12 years, works out at the club. "It's motivating to see what people can accomplish when they're given the opportunity. And that education piece is key: People with disabilities are still viewed as sick. Hopefully, we can help to change that."

    A spirit lifter
    Able-bodied members say they enjoy working out in such a supportive, friendly environment.
    "This place is such an inspiration to me," says Louise Mankowski of Warren, one of the club's original members who is able-bodied. "It's great that we can all work out together, side by side. When I see someone in a wheelchair working out, it inspires me to keep going. And the owners really care about all of their customers."
    Cross Trainers also functions as a next step for people who have recently finished a course of physical therapy due to an injury or disability. Equipment can be used for general physical fitness or rehabilitation purposes. For example, a specialized piece of equipment called the Equalizer allows a wheelchair user to roll into the unit and work all major muscle groups without leaving the chair.
    People with limited lower-body movement also enjoy the Power Trainer, a hand cycle that allows the user to strap in his or her legs. Pedaling with the arms also moves the legs to get blood pumping and circulation flowing. "This is the most popular piece of equipment here, both with able bodied and disabled individuals," Grobbel says.
    In the club's aerobics studio, patrons can take classes ranging from kickboxing to wheelchair aerobics. Many local organizations enjoy scheduling special events for their members, such as obstacle courses for children with developmental disabilities.

    Changing perceptions
    Co-owner Carver has spent 18 years working with able-bodied and disabled clients. He is happy to offer workout tips or full personal training services and customized workout plans that use a person's capabilities. His clients include exercisers who use wheelchairs, have amputations, are blind or battling chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. He also trains Paralympic athletes.
    "Too many places see people with disabilities as a rolling liability," says Carver, who also writes a bi-weekly column for, an online community for people with disabilities. "We wanted to change that perception and also empower people with or without disabilities to have confidence in their own abilities." Grobbel and Carver chose the equipment, layout and their employees with care. All staffers have experience with people with disabilities, and some have experience with adaptive technology. Patrons are invited to bring in personal assistants or can request assistance from staffers -- even to remove a wheelchair from a vehicle.
    Grobbel, Carver and the rest of the staff are also involved in the community. They'll host a tent fair from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday for the general public. Vendors will be available to discuss products, and the Cross Trainers staff will be around to talk about the gym. That evening, a fund-raiser for children with spinal cord injuries will take place in downtown Mt. Clemens.
    "It's a big block party," Grobbel says. "This is something we've been doing for a long time, and it's just another way for me to try to give back to the community a little bit. It's a blast."
    As for Hovarter, she's planning to be a long-term member.
    "I have noticed a great improvement," she says. "My muscles feel stronger, and my movements are smoother. I have more function in my right arm than I had before, and my right leg now bends easier than it did before. I also now get a prickly feeling in my right foot sometimes. These might sound like little things, but they mean a lot to me."
    For more information on the tent fair or evening fund-raiser, call (810) 263-6600.

    Cross Trainers Fitness Forum
    Established: January 2001.
    Location: 20596 Hall, Clinton Township.
    Telephone: (810) 263-6600.
    Web site:
    Cost: Membership prices and packages vary. Local guests or family, accompanied by a member, free. Out-of-town guests, $10 per workout. Out-of-town guests accompanied by a member, $7 per workout.
    Services: Free seven-day trial membership, personal training, aerobics classes, personal consultations, massage therapy, child care, tanning, guest privileges, pro shop.
    Hours: 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

    Exercise care when choosing
    For people with disabilities or older exercisers, certain amenities are crucial for a successful workout experience. That's according to Christopher Grobbel and Randell Carver, co-owners of Cross Trainers Fitness Forum. Some questions to ask and things to note:
    1. Can you get around the facility without running into things? Are the aisles between the machines wide enough for wheelchairs, walkers, crutches or for two people to walk side by side?
    2. Are staff members able to help you use a machine? Can they help you with a transfer or with adjusting the equipment?
    3. Is the staff trained in sensitivity for people with disabilities? Is their attitude respectful and helpful?
    4. Does the exercise equipment meet your needs? For instance, if you don't have use of your legs, look for a cycle that uses arm power and allows you to strap your legs in.
    5. Are classes available for people with varying abilities and skill levels?
    6. Are the weight-training machines adjustable to fit your body? Is the resistance variable to meet your particular needs?
    7. Are locker rooms and restroom facilities appropriate for your needs?
    8. Is there adequate parking?
    9. Are the gym's hours convenient for your schedule?

    Choose the right trainer for you
    You don't have to be rich or famous to reap the benefits of hiring a personal trainer.
    Novice and veteran exercisers alike are working with personal trainers because they offer a practical and affordable means of getting and staying healthy. Most personal trainers work with their clients to increase or maintain fitness levels. They can assist with weight loss, offer new ideas and routines to break up the monotony of long-term exercises or help you prepare for a fitness goal, such as running a marathon or competing in a sporting event. For beginning exercisers, personal trainers can help design a complete fitness plan compatible with your needs, time and goals.
    You may choose to meet with a personal trainer several times a week and work out together or just once in a while for tips, ideas and evaluation. Most personal trainers cost $25-$50 per hour. Here are some tips from the American Council on Exercise to help you hire the right personal trainer:
    * Ask for references.
    Ask the trainer for the names and phone numbers of other clients with goals similar to yours. Call to see if they were pleased with their workouts, if the trainer was punctual and prepared, and if they felt their individual needs were addressed. The best personal trainer to hire is the one others give high marks.
    * Make sure the trainer has liability insurance and provides business policies in writing.
    Many personal trainers operate as independent contractors and are not employees of a fitness facility. You should find out if the trainer you want to hire carries professional liability insurance. A reputable personal trainer also should make sure you understand the cancellation policy and billing procedure. The best way to avoid confusion and to protect your rights is to have those policies in writing.
    * Look for a trainer who is able to assist you with your special needs.
    A trainer should always have you fill out a health history questionnaire to determine your needs or limitations. If you have a medical condition or a past injury, a personal trainer should design a session that takes these into account. If you're under a doctor's care, a personal trainer should discuss any exercise concerns with your doctor and ask for a health screening or release from the doctor.
    * Find out what the trainer charges.
    Rates vary, depending on the trainer's experience and the length and location of the workout session. For example, a personal trainer who works in a fitness club probably will charge less per hour than one who works independently and needs to come to your home or office.
    * Decide if this is someone you can work with.
    Some people like to exercise in the morning, others in the evening. Will the personal trainer you're talking to accommodate your schedule? What about the trainer's gender? Some people do better working with a trainer of the same sex; others prefer the opposite sex.

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