The main room at Fitness for Health has 17 exergaming stations and feels like a cross between a gym and an arcade. Flashing lights and beeping sounds come from large freestanding and wall-mounted machines. The floor is made of recycled tires. There’s a rock wall, mini artificial turf field and a long, narrow trampoline. Doors open to reveal four smaller rooms that are games themselves: One is filled with a glow-in-the-dark climbing wall; another is a dark room that can be set up like a laser maze with crisscrossing neon green light beams a la Mission Impossible. Another room has a light board for a floor.

Sickel and his staff—which includes occupational, speech and physical therapists—see clients ranging in age from 2½ to 91. Many have developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and ADHD, and take one-on-one sessions with the type of trainer or therapist they need. (There are no memberships to Fitness for Health; clients can pay per visit or purchase a package.) Other clients come in for weight management and wellness classes, or for the facility’s athletic performance development program, all of which utilize the exergaming concept. Exergaming can help improve reaction time, peripheral vision, balance, kinesthetic sense (what your body is doing in relation to things around you) and motor skills. “We take a lot for granted, just even catching a ball or kicking a ball,” says Sickel, who often works with clients on motor planning tasks such as tying their shoes. His own daughter, Amanda, who also has ADHD, graduated from college with a degree in psychology and now works with children who have special needs. “Kids very low in motor [skills] have low confidence, low self-esteem, and that leads to an incredible amount of stress,” Sickel says.

About 18 years ago, Ethan Ulanow’s parents, Les and Lori, decided to try exergaming at Fitness for Health to help their then-kindergartener, who struggled with extreme emotions that often showed up as anger. The youngster had seen specialist after specialist but never received an accurate diagnosis. 

Ethan, now 22, describes himself as a “special needs poster child of the ’90s.” He couldn’t control his behavior—at school, he would kick, throw pencils, scream and flip desks. “My parents were always my biggest advocates. They were always the ones looking for new programs, looking for new things,” he says.

But Ethan wanted nothing to do with Fitness for Health. The first time he spotted the Trazer, an interactive gaming system similar to the Nintendo Wii, he hid behind the TV. “I was so terrified,” he says. “It was a new environment, and I did not like new things.”

Sickel sat on the floor near him. “It’s OK, bud, it’s OK,” Sickel said. “You can come out—we’re here to have fun.” Ethan spent his first 30-minute session hiding. But after a few more visits he began to warm up to Sickel, and to the games. After spending his days in school being told, “Don’t do this. Don’t climb on that. Don’t touch that,” Fitness for Health became an outlet. 

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“Now you’re climbing on a climbing wall, you’re throwing balls at a light-up wall…you’re in an indoor batting cage,” says Ethan, who graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. “Honestly, for a while I thought my parents were just paying for me to have fun.”

Being able to let out his stress helped improve his behavior and increase his activity level. But he still struggled at times. “It’s this magical thing,” he says. “In my darkest of times, I would go to Fitness for Health and really feel like myself, and feel happy.” 

For Ethan, it helped to know that his trainer understood what he was going through. Sickel had told him, as he often tells children who are frustrated or discouraged, that he himself had a learning disability. “Growing up, I wasn’t really skilled at sports,” Sickel said. “It took time, but don’t ever give up.” Last December Ethan received a degree in psychology from American University. He’s currently earning a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University in New York, hoping to help kids like him. 

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