A gym for every body

A specially designed new exercise center in Tel Aviv’s Beit Halohem means even severely disabled IDF veterans can now enjoy a workout.

November 12, 2010 17:03
Gym at Beit Halohem is fit for those the disabled

311_Beit Halohem gym. (photo credit: Courtesy)

At a newly opened gym in north Tel Aviv’s Afeka neighborhood, Randall Lee Sharon is enjoying an energetic lunchtime workout on one of the state-of-the-art exercise bikes. As he pedals hard, he helps time pass by watching a music video on the bike’s personal TV screen.

“If I get really bored, this bike has video games too,” he jokes. “Plus, of course, I can monitor my heart-rate and see how many calories I’m burning.”

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A typical scene from a Tel Aviv luxury gym? Not quite.

A disabled IDF veteran, Sharon’s left leg is paralyzed and most gyms are inaccessible to him. Now, though, thanks to a new facility opened by the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization – his disability need not stop him getting fit. Every piece of apparatus in this new gym is specially designed so that even people with severe disabilities – including amputees, wheelchair users and those, like Sharon, with paralyzed limbs – can enjoy the physical and mental benefits of a regular workout.

The gym is one of many sporting facilities at the organization’s Beit Halohem center in Tel Aviv, a 10,000- square-meter complex for disabled IDF veterans. Created immediately after the War of Independence, the organization currently provides services to 50,000 IDF veterans disabled in battle, active service or reserve duty – a sobering reflection of the heavy price Israelis have had to pay for the security of their country.

“We have Druse, Beduin, Circassian, and Christian IDF veterans as well as Jews,” says national chairman Haim Bar, adding that as well as soldiers, members also include civilians disabled in terror attacks.

The organization runs three Beit Halohem centers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and another in Beersheba is currently under construction. A major goal of these centers is not only to rehabilitate disabled veterans, but also to help them reintegrate into Israeli society.

“We want to take part in life as regular citizens,” Bar stresses, adding that one of their projects is reaching out to newly disabled soldiers as they recover in hospital.

It’s a tough job. These soldiers must come to terms with disabilities that will permanently affect their lives. Sport, says Bar, can help because it enables people to strengthen themselves psychologically as well as physically.

Beit Halohem’s new gym, which replaces an older, smaller and outdated facility, is a big boost for the organization’s efforts to make sport and fitness accessible to its members.

Micky Uzai, Beit Halohem’s sports director, exudes delight as he talks about the project, which uses the latest equipment from the Italian company TechnoGym and is the best of its kind in Israel.

“You know, creating this gym was really like the birth of a child,” he confides. “We all wanted it to be perfect, so we thought about every detail. It’s really the best of the best.”

Although it is so new, hundreds of people are signed up to use the gym every week.

“We want as many members as possible to play sport, both because it improves health and because it helps with rehabilitation,” Uzai explains.

During this midweek lunchtime, gym users include both men and women, young and not-so-young, wheelchair users, people with amputated limbs and those with
less severe disabilities: a real cross-section of Beit Halohem’s membership.

Michal, a personal trainer, demonstrates some of the apparatus, including a set of machines that exercise the arms, shoulders and upper body specially designed for people who cannot use their legs. Other machines work on the lower body and are for people who have limited or no use of their arms.

“This way, even if a person cannot use a certain part of his or her body, they can still get a good aerobic workout, and that’s very important,” says Michal. “Many of these machines are designed so that people in wheelchairs can use them, for example. They can just roll the chair right up to the machine and start working out.”

What do the members think? Rami Pul, a wheelchair user, says he is delighted with the new gym because now he has the opportunity to improve his fitness.

“I have a problem with my shoulder and I can’t use my legs,” he explains, demonstrating how to use a shoulder press machine. “So I haven’t played any sport for ages.

The apparatus here is the best; it gives people a good feeling to come use it.”

Yehuda Itzhak, also in a wheelchair, agrees. “The people who thought of this gym and donated the money for it are just marvelous,” he adds.

As well as offering exercise workouts that are personally tailored to meet an individual’s needs, each piece of gym equipment comes with a built-in TV screen with multiple channels, an iPod or MP3 player connector to allow users to enjoy their own music while exercising, and even an Internet connection so people can check their e-mail mid-workout.

The gym isn’t the only thing that’s new at Beit Halohem: In an adjacent room, Uzai shows us a weirdlooking apparatus. With its mysterious pulleys and ropes, it looks a bit like a medieval torture chamber, but in fact this is the very latest in Pilates apparatus, designed to relieve rather than cause pain, says Uzai.

An exercise method that concentrates on developing a strong “core” – the muscles of the upper and lower back, buttocks, abdomen and thighs – Pilates has many beneficial effects, including improved strength, stamina and balance, and is therefore ideal for many disabled people.

“It does look a bit sado-masochistic, though,” admits Uzai. “So we invite people to come for a taster class to see what it’s really like. Then they get hooked, and sign up for more.”

Who is entitled to use these sporting facilities? Any member of Beit Halohem can use them without extra charge, says Uzai. “We cater for people at all sporting levels, from those who just want to improve their basic fitness to pros who compete in various sports at national and international levels.” He adds that in addition to the gym facilities, Beit Halohem offers a wide choice of other sports including wheelchair basketball, tennis, sailing, dancing, yoga, Feldenkreis, volleyball, badminton and even a shooting gallery for blind veterans.

Beit Halohem members compete at all levels, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the dazzling displays of sporting trophies, cups, plaques and medals won by its members.

Despite its small size, Israel is a world leader in disabled sports, and its athletes have won an incredible 333 Paralympic medals since 1960. Around 70 percent of Israel’s current national team of disabled athletes are people injured in battle or in terror attacks.

These include Doron Shaziri, who in August 1987 was on active service with the Golani Brigade in Lebanon when he stepped on a mine. He lost his left leg below the knee. Among those wounded was Shaziri’s commander, Ziv Better, who lost most of his vision in the rescue attempt. Both men are medal-winning Paralympic athletes, Shaziri for rifle-shooting, Better for swimming.

As Beit Halohem’s new gym opens its doors in Tel Aviv, IDF Disabled Veterans Organization chairman Haim Bar is looking to the future. His goal is to create similar facilities in other Israeli cities so every disabled veteran – from top athletes preparing for the London 2012 Paralympics through people like Sharon, who want to have fun getting fit – can access and enjoy them.

“After we complete the new Beit Halohem in Beersheba, we want to build another in Ashdod and a sports center in Eilat,” he says. “We want centers like this all over Israel.”

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