Barbara likes to participate. Kenneth’s weight has dropped from 205 to 190 pounds. Frankie has gained muscle and changed to healthier eating habits.
So, typical results from typical people working out at the Cub Run Rec Center in Chantilly?
Not quite. For these individuals are part of an innovative program, devised by therapist Ron Ball, case manager for severely mentally ill clients who are part of Fairfax County’s recovery-based living plan.
Ball, a decades-long cyclist who works out in a gym several times a week, didn’t need his master’s degree in human services to know that his clients would benefit from exercising and changing how they ate.
Indeed, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Hearts & Minds program — an online, interactive educational initiative — promotes wellness for both mind and body.
Turning his idea into action, however, took some perseverance. But for Ball — a rock ‘n’ roll drummer in Manhattan in the 1970s and a 4-time cancer survivor beginning in the 1990s — perseverance had become second nature.
When told he could not instruct his clients at a Fairfax County facility because he lacked credentials, on his own time and with his own money, he became a certified personal fitness trainer through the Aerobics Fitness Association of America.
“Ron doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Monica L. Phillips, manager of Fitness and Wellness, Fairfax County Park Authority. “He comes up with ideas and solutions of how we can work together.”
A Google search shows this effort as likely the first in the country to work with residential severely mentally ill clients. There is an ongoing program in Vermont, In Shape, but it matches trainers with outpatients.
This program began with weight training and cardio workouts on stationary bikes and treadmills, and eventually added yoga. In developing it, though, Ball was basically working without the proverbial net. “I’d never done this before,” he said. “So I just had to wing it, because there was no one to ask: ‘How do you train mentally ill, sedentary people?’”
Scott has lost nearly 60 pounds since he began participating in February 2012. “It keeps us physically fit — eat right and live a long, healthy life,” he said. Jay especially likes yoga “because it enhance my martial arts studies. I get a lot of mental benefit from yoga and meditation.” Said James: “I like everything — the bike, the treadmill. I think it was difficult for me at first, but I kept going.”
Alec Aakesson, a fit, tattooed Dane with a British accent, is one of their yoga instructors. “They’ve really improved,” he said. “I see a lot of progress.” But he pointed out that “when you come to a yoga mat, everyone progresses at a different pace. We all come together like an archipelago, but each mat is an island.”
They have adapted to the gym etiquette right away, noted the facility’s fitness director Julie Beck. They let people work in, wipe down the machines, return weights to their placeholders, and even talk to members about workout suggestions.
“Their routine has become part of our routine — they are regulars now,” she said. She stressed how well they fit in, citing, for instance, her initial concerns about integrating them into a yoga class, but the class size has since increased, not shrunk.
“I’ve never had a problem,” Beck said. “They come, they do their fitness. You can see how Ron is fighting for this.”
Ball acknowledges he couldn’t do any of this without the support he received from work (access to a vehicle to transport his clients and a changed schedule) and from Cub Run (a pass even though he’s not a member of this facility).
“It’s part of who we are and what our mission at the rec centers is,” Phillips said, “to give all citizens of Fairfax County opportunities to use our facilities to live active, healthy lifestyles.”
Ball’s cancers were smoking-related, so he readily acknowledges that his number one hidden agenda was — and is — smoking cessation. “But you can’t come straight at the problem,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go around the corner.”
So he thought that if his clients started working out and became more active, they would begin to feel healthier and stronger, and hopefully be motivated to quit smoking. Some of what he envisioned has happened. “They feel like they accomplish something, plus it gives them bragging rights, saying ‘I’ve been to the gym twice this week.’” And now that they’re into it, Ball added, “they are all about getting tight shirts and showing off their muscles.”
Jimmy likes doing yoga “most of all. It relieves my stresses and anxiety. I’m eating well and doing more exercise [he’s lost 12 pounds]. We’re really on the right track to recovery.”
“When I see all this, I’m blown away,” said Ball. “I’m humbled by the normalization, if that’s the right word — they do what everybody else does. The pride that they take, it’s just amazing to see.”
Ball frequently receives comments on how hard his group works. Janice Adamshick, a facility trainer whose clients are people with orthopedic or metabolic health concerns, has watched the group for months. “I’ve seen how happy they look, and I’m really, really impressed with how they work together. I didn’t know until I talked with Ron what their disabilities were,” she said, adding: “I’d love to see more programs like this.”
“Every time I come here,” said Ted, “I give it everything I have.”