June 20, 2017

Local gym owner levels playing field for athletes

Nathan Fiske
Brendan Aylward, 24, is a certified strength and conditioning instructor who trains disabled and typical athletes at his Lancaster gym.
People with disabilities generally aren't as active as non-disabled people.

While many of his peers are enjoying raucous weekends and sleeping late, 24-year-old Brendan Aylward is busy working out.

But he's not your typical fitness junkie, always reaching for a new personal best. Instead, Aylward feels best as an athlete when he's working with others, and often, his fellow athletes are disabled.

What started as an extracurricular activity in high school, working out alongside disabled students in a program run by the Special Olympics Massachusetts chapter called Unified Sports, became a vocation for Aylward. He opened a gym, Unified Health and Performance, on Mill Street in Lancaster last summer, with a focus on adaptive programs that are suitable for people of all ages and abilities.

Aylward recalled how breaking his wrist led him to join the Unified Sports basketball team when he was a student a Nashoba Regional High School. He became good friends with the disabled student he was paired up with.

"I was really drawn to how the athletes responded," said Aylward, an avid runner. "It seemed to be a more important form of athletics than what I was used to."

Aylward stayed active as a volunteer with the Special Olympics, and joined Team Hoyt, the running chair racing and cycling team started by father-and-son team Dick and Rick Hoyt, who became famous for their participation in the Boston Marathon and other races across the United States.

A self-described numbers guy, Aylward meanwhile pursued a degree in special education and mathematics from Lesley University in Cambridge. He was working in classroom settings with special education students but said he didn't like all the paperwork involved with teaching, so he began scheming to open his own fitness business that would bring disabled, or "adaptive" athletes, and typical athletes together under one roof.

Aylward opted to take some biology and anatomy classes as he neared graduation, and became a certified strength and conditioning instructor. He also immersed himself in market research, playing around with a business plan that would be a "hybrid" of a nonprofit and a for profit. Ultimately, however, he was confident that his gym could be a successful for-profit business, given the contacts he'd made through the Special Olympics and Team Hoyt and his knowledge of what athletes needed to succeed.

"I know there's a need for this, I know I have the interest," Aylward recalled thinking. "What do I have to do to make a gym succeed?"

He saved $32,000 to buy the requisite equipment while working full-time during college, and at age 23, Aylward signed a lease on his gym space. Doors opened in July 2016 and just under a year later, he has about 300 members. About 75 are adaptive athletes with disabilities, while the rest are non-disabled and looking to fulfill a variety of fitness goals.

Through weekly group classes and one-on-one training, Aylward's focus is to always help clients improve, whether they're college athletes trying to stay in shape for the summer, or children with medical conditions who need to get stronger.

New perspective

George Kent, director of organizational development at Special Olympics Massachusetts, said the Unified Health and Performance model offers something unique in Massachusetts, and it's "breaking down barriers" for disabled athletes. Kent, who has know Aylward since he got involved in the Unified Sports program in high school, has visited the gym. He described the gym as "spartan," but he said Aylward maximizes the use of the space, and much of the equipment can be adapted for different ability levels.

"(Brendan) spends time with each one of the athletes. Whether they're a Division I college athlete or a Special Olympics athlete learning the basics of the sport, he knows each one," Kent said.

Dick Hoyt, who raced in events with his son since the 1970s and now does speaking engagements around the country, said he's never seen a gym like Aylward's.

"What he's doing is just unbelieveable," Hoyt said.

Exercise as prevention

Access to exercise programs that are tailored to them is especially important for the disabled. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disabled adults are three times more likely to have heart disease, diabetes or suffer from stroke than non-disabled adults, and nearly half of disabled adults get no aerobic physical exercise, which is key to prevention.

For athletes with disabilities, taking a class at Unified Health and Performance is often a foray into the world of group fitness, said Dr. Kate Engelhardt, a Lancaster chiropractor who refers pediatric patients to Aylward when strength and conditioning will help their overall condition.

Engelhardt said she has seen physical therapists do adaptive exercise programs with thedisabled, but finding that in a gym is unique.

"Brendan is really special because he has the knowledge but he also understands the only limits that people have are what they put on themselves," Engelhardt said.

Anyone who is intimidated by group fitness or new exercise programs, regardless of ability, is likely to feel at ease working with Aylward. So says Marta Aurin, a Lancaster resident who began taking group classes with Aylward soon after the gym opened last summer. At 51, Aurin was in a fitness rut and wanted to get stronger, but she wanted to avoid an environment infused with a "jock mentality."

At Unified Health and Performance, Aurin said athletes are safe from that. Her son, a middle school student who prefers solo sports to team sports, has thrived since starting group classes with Aylward, and her husband has even joined.

"They're on a level playing field in there," Aurin said. "What they're doing in there is not like anything else they're doing in school or in a sport."

Sixteen-year-old Owen Anketell, a Hudson resident with a hereditary form of paraplegia, said he appreciates how Aylward has leveled the field. Anketell began training in the winter for a hand-cycling trip he plans to make from Maine to Florida this summer, focusing on rowing and weightlifting to build upper-body strength.

"I think it's just great how we're all able to interact together," Anketell said.

Managing expectations

Those familiar with the program speculate that Aylward will need to find larger space eventually. But Aylward, who hasn't taken a day off in almost a year and has been profitable since his third month in business, is taking a conservative approach.

He's content in the Mill Street space for the foreseeable future, as he mulls ways to diversify, including designing a certification program for trainers who want to work with the disabled, and becoming more active as a public speaker.

Meanwhile, the business continues to grow, mostly by word-of-mouth referrals from clients. He frequently fields texts from athletes he's working with, and he even competes in events with some of them.

"The aspect of the gym I love the most is the relationship with the clients, and I wouldn't differentiate between the adaptive clients and non-adaptive clients," Aylward said.


Type your comment here:

Today's Poll Do you support UMass Memorial's plan to convert psychiatric beds for medical/surgical use?<>
Most Popular on Facebook
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media