A fitness trainer from Bellmore is advocating to make gyms more inclusive for people of all abilities. Matthew Alexander, 19, is using his personal experiences to help the New York Fitness Coalition gain gyms essential status so they can remain open for clients — including those with physical and developmental disabilities — in the event of a second statewide shutdown.
According to NYFC President Charlie Cassara, gyms are classified as recreational facilities in New York. In August, the coalition brought a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pressure the state to allow gyms to reopen. Cuomo later announced the facilities could reopen — with restrictions — on Sept. 2.
But a new statewide restriction to curb the latest surge of Covid-19 infections nationwide requires gyms to close at 10 p.m. each night.
“Closing at 10 o’clock only affects one percent of overall gyms — it’s nonsense,” Cassara said. “From 1.2 million check-ins at gyms in the state of New York . . . we have shown four Covid cases. I would love for [Cuomo] to prove where gyms have been super spreaders, because they haven’t been.”
For Alexander, who’s on the autism spectrum, gyms provide a place to exercise and socialize with like-minded individuals, making them “essential” for people with disabilities, he said.
“Going to the gym does not only contribute to physical health — it is necessary for mental health as well,” he said. “Studies show that people who are on the autism spectrum, have ADHD or anxiety need physical activity to be calm and collective.
“The main reason why gyms should stay open is because exercise . . . provides the opportunity for socialization,” he continued. “Some people who are on the autism spectrum really struggle with socialization, and I used to be one of them. My entire life I had trouble socializing, [but] once I found the gym, I really felt like there was a place where I belonged.”
Inclusion is a top priority at Charles DeFrancesco’s White Plains gym, Arena Fitness, which houses a facility dedicated to providing physical activity for children and adults of all abilities. DeFrancesco, Alexander’s colleague, developed the “Fit 4 All” program for his son, Antonio, who is also on the autism spectrum.
The owner said that if gyms are designated as essential businesses — and therefore, could stay open through shutdown periods — it would prevent people with disabilities from having to find another facility to accommodate them.
“It’s difficult for some people on the spectrum to muster the energy to go to the gym,” DeFrancesco said. “Then you have some gyms that have permanently closed” as a result of the pandemic, “so the people going there now have to transition, which is the worst thing for [those] on the spectrum or with disabilities.”
DeFrancesco is helping Cassara build universal gym licensing and accreditation guidelines for the Department of Labor and Department of Health to work towards standardizing the state’s fitness industry and gain gyms essential status. That includes bringing inclusivity to gym-goers of all abilities, Cassara said.
“People need to understand” that people with disabilities are “different, not less,” DeFrancesco said. “Accommodations need to be set up for them ahead of time . . . so they immediately feel at home. The last thing they need to feel is singled out.”
Alexander leads group fitness classes at Synergy Fitness in Merrick, Long Island Health and Racquet Club in Wantagh, Life Clubs in Lawrence and UFC Gym in New Hyde Park. As an instructor, he aims to make each session “as inclusive as possible,” a sentiment all trainers should be mindful of, he said.
“There needs to be standards set from higher up that say how to teach people with autism,” he added, suggesting tools like noise-canceling headphones or incentive-based rewards programs. “The marketing needs to be more inclusive, welcoming people of all types of abilities — that’s the most important thing.”