Janne Kouri, President and Founder of NextStep Fitness, a state-of-the-art specialized gym facility in Lawndale, California, is an advocate with a focused dream: “…to expand NextStep Fitness in communities of
need throughout the U.S., so people living with paralysis or disability would have access to community-based fitness options. This is a nationwide problem, and it needs to be addressed,” he says.
This mission is inspired by Kouri’s own journey. In 2006, while playing beach volleyball with friends, Kouri took a break and dove into the water to cool off; he hit his head on a sandbar and was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. He then began a challenging rehabilitation for his spinal cord injury at Fraizer Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. His background as an avid exerciser and former college football athlete at Georgetown University equipped him with a unique sensibility for tackling the demands of his recovery.
“Coming from an athletic background, I was used to working out—used to pushing—and had the mental capacity for it,” he says. Most people, Kouri notes, need support to find that mind-body connection. “Each person has to make a decision: Do I dedicate myself to re-learning my body? Or do I give up? You have to find that inner strength, find a way to stay active and improve your situation. For people with disabilities, they need the accessible facilities to make that happen,” he adds.
During Kouri’s twelve-month intensive rehabilitation, he received Locomotor Training, a cutting-edge rehab intervention based on emerging neuroscience research for spinal cord injury (SCI). Kouri describes
sessions in which he was set up in a suspended parachute-like harness over a treadmill, and then, with the assistance of therapists, he was guided to map out the pattern of walking. “Locomotor Training is not only about re-learning how to walk, as for some people it may give that result but not for others,” he says.
“It has so many benefits outside of walking – improving circulation, improving bone density, reaping the benefits of being weight-bearing and upright on your feet.”
When planning for life post-rehab, Kouri wanted to continue Locomotor Training closer to home, but found no disability-accessible gym facilities or Locomotor Training available on a community level in his hometown. He became concerned about post- recovery issues – living and staying well with SCI. Contending with this resource gap, Kouri and his wife armed with determination, and support from the Christopher and Dana Reeve NeuroRecovery Network (NRN), founded NextStep Fitness.
NextStep Fitness is now a non-profit exercise facility servicing a diverse clientele. Sixty percent of their members have SCI. Other members have neurological medical conditions such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. They also make use of the broad ranging adaptive exercise resources at the center.
The center’s motto “The next challenge… a lifetime of wellness” captures the spirit of their advocacy efforts. Kouri asserts, “ People don’t understand that for persons with SCI, not walking is only one minor issue as compared to the other health issues one has to deal with – staying fit, maintaining a healthy weight, regulating your body temperature, or coping with pressure sores. SCI constantly requires you to learn what your body needs—and it can be changing every day,” he says.
NextStep Fitness takes efforts to make the center accessible in additional ways. Memberships start at a modest $50 a month. Members can also choose the type of membership they need based on their health
Kouri also noted the benefit of such a center in promoting community wellness. “There are physical benefits of having an accessible facility for our members, but, more importantly, we see mental benefits; our clients have somewhere to go where others truly understand what they are going through and what their bodies need. Also, we have become a resource to many of the family members of our participants. We take efforts to keep things light; our clients do get their exercise in, but it’s also an uplifting experience to
be a part of such a community,” says Kouri.
Having access to Locomotor Training has aided Kouri in continuing to make gains in his own recovery far beyond his inpatient rehab days. His tireless three-year commitment to Locomotor Training has recently led him to take his first steps with a walker. Kouri is passionate about creating such health-enhancing fitness opportunities for others. “You should not have to move across the country or state to have a healthy life,” says Kouri. “Able-bodied people can go to their local gym to stay fit and reach for new health and wellness goals. We want the same options for people with disabilities.”
When asked about his next exercise goal, Kouri answers, “Locomotor Training is a central part of my plan, but I am looking forward to trying adaptive skiing this March.”
To sponsor a NextStep Fitness initiative in your area, contact Janne Kouri - firstname.lastname@example.org
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