In the wake of the London 2012 Paralympics, there has been a big increase in demand from the less able to become more involved in sport and exercise, or at least that is the theory. But how much has been done to cater for this growing demand for accessible fitness?

In this, the first of two articles on disabled access in UK gyms, we’re going to look at the record of some of the country’s biggest gym chains.  Next week we’ll be bringing details of the quality of access in some more stylish private gyms. But for now, our focus is on the bigger companies who we got in touch with to find out about what they’re doing to make their gyms more inclusive.

Disabled Access

First things first, we need to look at the state of access in gyms before the Paralympics.  The record does not look great. Last summer the charity, Leonard Cheshire Disability, surveyed Britain’s gyms to find out about their disabled access. They found that “for many disabled people gyms are no-go areas”. Partly as a result of this, only 18% of disabled adults undertake physical activity for more than 30 minutes a week, compared with 38% of non-disabled adults. They discovered most gyms had inaccessible changing rooms, steps, poor staff training and a lack of usable sports equipment.  As many as 31% of gyms had no accessible machines to speak of at all.

In many cases gyms were found to be ‘broadly accessible’ in that they complied with disability discrimination legislation which sets standards that they are legally obliged to meet but beyond that they did little to help. Although over two thirds of disabled people surveyed said that they would like to do more exercise, only 12% of people asked predicted improvements would take place to fulfill the Paralympic legacy. There are roughly 11 million disabled people in the UK, but many gyms appeared to be doing very little to help them.

But that was over six months ago, before the ‘Paralympic legacy’ had had the opportunity to kick in. With this in mind, we’ve been asking some of the UK’s biggest gym chains about what they do to make their gyms accessible. We asked Fitness First, LA Fitness and Virgin Active what they have been doing since London 2012.  We reminded them off the results of the Leonard Cheshire survey and asked for a response. We asked if they required their gym branches to  have: automatic doors, disabled toilets, working lifts, accessible changing rooms, disabled fitness equipment, information in alternative formats such as braille, hoists or lifts for getting into and out of the pools and whether staff are trained specifically to provide assistance to disabled people.Here’s what they had to say: 

It says on the website of Virgin Active Health Clubs that “everyone’s welcome at Virgin Active. Young or old. Fit or unfit. It’s all good.” So you’d hope that their disabled access would live up to this mantra. When we spoke to them they told us that they “provide an inclusive environment for people of all abilities, across over 100 sites in the UK. The majority of clubs offer facilities including disabled toilets, working lifts, accessible changing rooms, pool hoists and disabled fitness equipment.”

“Virgin Active is committed to providing members with the best fitness experience and many Paralympic athletes currently train in our clubs. Disabled members are able to bring their carer into the club during training sessions, at no extra charge.”

Paralympic sprinter, Sophia Warner, not only uses Virgin Active but is also a spokesperson for the gym chain. It sounds like they have put some effort into making their health clubs accessible. Still, it’s necessary to call ahead to find out more about your local Virgin Active because the majority of gyms have some or all of the requirements for a less able member but not all of them do (although the same could be said of any and every gym).

Disabled Access
Virgin Active Health Clubs

We also heard from LA Fitness who told us the following: “LA fitness is a private gym chain with 80 clubs around the UK…many of which are in difficult to access locations such as basements of offices (this particularly applies to the London gyms) so we assess each gym’s disability access on a site-by-site basis and also work closely with members to do our best to ensure we meet any particular needs they might have.”

“We have several examples of where we’ve worked with members to provide either special access or facilities for members.”

Again, they are saying the right things. The fact that they have worked with their less able customers particularly shows that they seem to be approaching accessibility in a sensible way. It’s important to engage with the less able people in the process of making the building more accessible; otherwise it’s easy to overlook potential problems.

Disabled Access
LA Fitness

Unfortunately, at this stage, Fitness First have not replied to our questions about their disabled access. We hope to hear from them soon.

Disabled Access
Fitness First

A good place to find out which gyms do have accessible equipment is the Inclusive Fitness section on the website of the English Federation of Disability Sport.  The Inclusive Fitness Initiative has been running for over ten years, keeping track of how accessible UK gyms are. They have a ranking system of accreditation based on how much a gym has done to improve the inclusivity of its access. Gyms which meet their criteria are rated as provisional level (for gyms beginning to consider and work towards meeting the needs of disabled customers), registered level (for facilities that are proactive in on their journey to being more inclusive) and excellent level (for those who show outstanding commitment to being inclusive).

They currently have a database of over 400 IFI accredited gyms around the country.  You can find the closest one to you on their website. One striking thing is that there are twenty-two Fitness First gyms on the IFI list which makes it all the more frustrating that we haven’t heard back from them yet.

So that’s what we have heard from the major chains we asked. What do you think about what we have heard back from them? What are your experiences of access in gyms? How do the statements we received (or didn’t receive) from the major gym chains relate to your experiences with them?   We want to make this a topic of discussion and let people’s voices be heard on this issue. Please get in touch with us with any stories on this, whether they are negative or positive, we want to know if the disabled access in major gym chains is better or worse than expected.

If you have anything you want to say on this issue then comment below, tweet us or drop us a comment on our Facebook page. We really want to open a discussion.

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  1. Jay Muthu

    Did your research yield any gyms with good wheelchair access and equipment at all, or were the places just meeting the legal norms

    1. Fiona Jarvis

      No they were even too scared to talk with us for fear of recrimination! v. disappointing