Sterling gym pumps up service for people with special needs

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published September 19, 2016


Doctors’ advice to exercise more also applies to people with special needs, and a new gym may help such people reach their fitness goals.

Inclusively Fit recently opened up a 5,000-square-foot gym in Sterling Heights that caters exclusively to people of all ages, including kids, with special needs.

Inclusively Fit owner Mark Ralko is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University who majored in special education, with a concentration in studies related to cognitively impaired and adaptive fitness.

Ralko, 30, formerly worked for Birmingham Public Schools and its special education program, and he developed an innovative adaptive fitness program at the Birmingham Family YMCA.

He said the gym opened in July and currently has about 40 people using the facility, often in one-on-one training or in small group settings.

He said the gym’s staff includes personal trainers, and its equipment includes stationary weight machines, stationary bikes, treadmills, elliptical machines, a dumbbell rack, medicine balls, a mini-staircase, an obstacle course, a basketball court and more.

Everything is designed to accommodate people who normally might struggle in a typical gym setting, he explained.

“Our main mission is providing life skills for fitness, social skills and life skills for people with special needs,” he said. “Our mission statement is, ‘If you are here, you succeed.’ We really emphasize that word ‘succeed’ here.”

Ralko said physical activity produces not only physical benefits, but also cognitive and self-esteem improvements. He said exercise is especially important for people with Down syndrome because they are more vulnerable to weight gain and heart disease due in part to some medications.

Similarly, he said, exercise may calm a child with a condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or help them concentrate better in school.

“We serve autism, cognitively impaired, hearing impaired, emotionally impaired — anyone who has an IEP (individualized education program) at their school and is qualified for special education services. They are more than welcome to come to Inclusively Fit. We also offer tutoring here.”

The founder of the Play-Place for Autistic Children, which held its grand opening Aug. 1, said her organization is in talks about entering a partnership with Inclusively Fit.

Shell Jones, the Play-Place’s executive director, said she visited the gym Sept. 12 and was impressed with it, calling it “totally incredible.” She said she plans to partner with the gym to bring classes to the Play-Place while funneling families to the gym too.

“It’s similar in what our visions are,” she said. “I am definitely behind what they’re doing over there. And we want to be able to have our families benefit from the wonderful services that they’re offering.”

Find out more about Inclusively Fit, 37980 Commerce Drive in Sterling Heights, by visiting or by calling (586) 850-5004. Learn about the Play-Place for Autistic Children, 41105 Technology Park Drive in Sterling Heights, by visiting or by calling (586) 254-6533.