people on treadmillsPeople supported by Community Living Essex County get in twice-weekly physical activity at the Toldo Lancer Centre as part of the Adapted Physical Exercise (APEX) program created and run by professors and students from the Faculty of Human Kinetics.

Exercise program helps adults with disabilities stay active

The beaming smiles say it all.

People supported by Community Living Essex County radiate joy as they frequent the University of Windsor’s Toldo Lancer Centre. Under the supervision of human kinetics students working with them one-on-one, these men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities do cardio, weights, and sports — walking the track, working out in the gym, and shooting some hoops, playing badminton, or kicking around a soccer ball.

“They are so excited to come here. I cannot begin to express how much excitement there is,” said Cynthia Castellucci, a support worker to three men who use the centre. “This is good for them on so many levels.”

The program that brings Community Living Essex County to the Toldo Lancer Centre is offered by UWindsor’s Adaptive Physical Exercise Research Group, or APEX for short. Led by the Faculty of Human Kinetics professors Chad Sutherland and Sean Horton, the APEX program has been offered up to three times a year for as many as 12 weeks at a time.

Participants get much-needed exercise and social interaction — especially important after being on lockdown during the pandemic. Families of people in the program say their loved ones now want to exercise outside of APEX, can be more comfortable in new social situations, and no longer need certain medications thanks to the increased physical activity.

But the participants aren’t the only ones benefitting, said APEX co-ordinator Mikala Jones, a master’s student conducting research on the program. Jones has discovered student volunteers in the program have learned to look at the world through a more inclusive lens.

“I’m studying how being involved in APEX has changed their attitudes about working with people with disabilities,” Jones said. “I’ve had students tell me they’ve changed their career plans because of this program.”

Jones said, in her own case, she started university intent on becoming a physiotherapist. Thanks to APEX, she now wants to work with people with disabilities.

“This is the highlight of my week,” she said. “I love working with them.”

APEX began in 2010 with a telephone inquiry. Sutherland, who normally specializes in high performance sport, answered a message about what types of exercise would be good for adults with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The next thing he knew, he was developing a program and inviting people supported by Community Living Essex County to campus to take part.

“It began as offering a community service that wasn’t currently available, but it’s grown to be so much more than that,” Sutherland said.

Dr. Horton said the program has had a far-reaching effect.

“We now have more than 200 former student volunteers out in the community, with the experience and training to act as advocates for people with an intellectual disability,” he said.

Horton and Sutherland have built research into the program. Over the past decade, they have tested participants to assess their fitness levels before, during, and after completing the program, and have interviewed family members to gauge the impact of APEX.

They’ve developed an adaptive exercise manual available for download at no cost. It has been downloaded all across Canada and in more than a dozen countries. And they’ve produced a catalogue of videos showing how to properly perform exercises.

Both the manual and videos feature participants from Community Living Essex County in the demonstrations.

Horton and Sutherland apply for grants to keep APEX and its research going.

Current funding comes from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In the past, they’ve received grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Southern Network of Specialized Care.

Because the fitness program is tailored, participants can be in wheelchairs and have varying fitness levels and abilities.

Sutherland said one of the “critical aspects” of the program is that university students and members of the public using the Toldo Lancer Centre work out alongside the program’s participants.

“It is a truly inclusive environment.”

—Sarah Sacheli

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