Get FIT: Rowan program helps clients with special needs get and stay healthy

Get FIT: Rowan program helps clients with special needs get and stay healthy


Ringed by a rack of weights, an exercise bicycle, a treadmill, stability balls and more, the state-of-the-art Fitness Lab in James Hall was alive with Rowan students, clients and their parents on a recent Monday evening.

There, Rowan health and exercise science majors worked one on one with young adults diagnosed with differing levels of various types of developmental (and some physical) disabilities – and in some cases provided suggestions and words of encouragement to their parents and guardians as well.

Welcome to Get FIT @ Rowan, an outreach program of the School of Health Professions founded and directed by Dr. Leslie Spencer, professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science.

Collaborative effort

A collaborative effort between Rowan University and the non-profit Family Resource Network of New Jersey and funded in part by the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, Get FIT @ Rowan is part of the national Get FIT program that improves access to fitness, nutritional and wellness programs.

“We cater to people whose disabilities are severe enough that it really wouldn’t be possible for them to join a fitness facility where they would have to be independent and working around other people,” said Spencer.

This semester, about 40 clients, most in their 20s and 30s, are working with about 50 volunteer student trainers on Mondays through Thursdays in a choice of four one-hour periods morning through evening. Get FIT @ Rowan, which this semester runs through Dec. 6, added a session this fall just for students from Glassboro High School. Get FIT@ Rowan staff members encourage clients to come three times a week; some come fewer and some come all four days the program runs.

Needed services

“We don’t cater to children, and there is a reason for that,” Spencer said. “As long as people are in a school system, they have services. When people graduate from high school, most of those services go away.”

GetFIT celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and to date faculty and students have helped more than 150 young adults learn – and enjoy – exercise fundamentals, from lifting weights to using exercise machines to walking to tossing a ball – working toward building strength, increasing balance and stability, and improving cardiovascular health.

Participants and caregivers often find out about Get FIT @ Rowan through word of mouth, though the national Get FIT office, adult day programs and others refer people to the program as well.

Provisions for caregivers

Caregivers may participate in activities. “We really want the caregivers to be full participants. They get their own trainer,” Spencer said. “This is a chance to care for them. So often, the way programs work is there are activities for the person with the disability, and the caregiver just sits and watches.”

Kim Borgersen, of Sicklerville, enrolled three of her children in GetFIT @ Rowan: Brenda, 22; Charlotte, 21; and Nathan, 20.

Her reason was simple. “I wanted us all to be healthy.”

She found that getting her children to work out elsewhere in some cases could be a bit of a battle. And with her focus so much on them, she couldn’t take care of herself. An internet search on fitness options led her to contacting Spencer and enrolling her children in Get FIT @ Rowan in 2014.

“The college kids are great with my children,” she said. “And many of them can find similar interests to talk about.” That’s important to all of them, but perhaps especially to Nathan, who is on the autism spectrum and likes to talk about sciences, gaming and movies with Rowan trainers.

Volunteer trainers critical

Those trainers are critical to the program. “They really run this program in so many ways. Each session has an undergraduate student who is a paid session manager responsible for everything that goes on in the 10-week sessions. They train and guide volunteers, and they meet with me weekly to review what’s going on and any issues,” Spencer said. The volunteer trainers are matched to work one on one with clients.

Mikayla Dodge, 19, of Mantua, was the session manager on a recent Monday evening. The sophomore Health Promotion and Wellness Management major said, “Get FIT is special because it allows the clients to spend time with Rowan students who they might not have interacted with had it not been for Get FIT. Throughout the weeks, the clients and trainers make a connection with one another, and it becomes a very rewarding experience for everyone involved.” 

“Get FIT @ Rowan is a truly outstanding program. It is collaborative, externally funded, and has a well-defined identity among the many programs aimed at improving fitness and nutrition. Moreover, the program’s success during the past 10 years speaks clearly about its strong impact on improving the quality of life in our community and beyond,” said Dr. Cristian Botez, dean of the College of Science & Mathematics and School of Health Professions.

Eric Panetta, 24, attended a recent session with his mother, Gina. The Glassboro resident, who is on the autism spectrum, just began his third year with Get FIT @ Rowan. Eric, who attends classes at the Adult Center for Transition at Rowan College at Gloucester County, works three days a week at the Glassboro Goodwill store and enjoys participating in Rowan Unified Sports at the University. At Get FIT @ Rowan, he particularly likes lifting weights.

And, he said, “I enjoy Get FIT instead of getting out of it.”

To learn more about Get FIT @ Rowan, go to Get FIT Documentary or contact Spencer at