Greg Austin was an awkward teenager, a nerdy “Star Wars” fan in the land of “Friday Night Lights.”
He was raised in Dallas, and his Lone Star State roots were deep — the capital, Austin, was named after his great-great-great uncle. But he didn’t play football, that most Texas of passions, or any other team sports.
“I was overweight, had braces and weird hair,” Austin said. “I was an absolute frickin’ misfit.”
But in high school he began lifting weights in a friend’s attic. He got buff. His acne cleared up. The girls took notice.
Getting fit not only made him healthier, he was happier and more confident.
Fast-forward to today, and Austin, 52, is on a mission to help a segment of the population that is woefully underserved when it comes to fitness: adolescents and adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and similar neurological conditions.
It’s a return to the fitness field — in his late 20s, he was a personal trainer and gym owner — after working almost 20 years in marketing for consulting firms. The move was inspired by his autistic son, Lucas, whose anxiety and ADHD are greatly reduced when he’s physically active.
Many neurodivergent people like Lucas find it stressful, if not unbearable, to be in loud, bustling, brightly lit spaces like a typical gym. So, Austin and his wife, Kristina, who both earned MBAs from Babson College several years ago, developed and launched Inclusive Fitness, a gym in West Roxbury designed to lower the barriers to exercise for people with neurological differences.
The soft LED lighting, windows that let light in but block outside distractions, soothing wall colors, the noise-muffling equipment: all were researched and tested with fitness professionals, medical experts, and focus groups. The workouts are a lot like those you’d see being done at Lifetime Fitness.
“There’s no such thing as an autism-specific exercise,” Austin said.
Is Inclusive Fitness a labor of parents’ love? Absolutely.
But this mother and father are aiming bigger than a mom-and-pop business.
Fitness programs for people with cognitive disorders aren’t new. Boston Ballet runs adaptive dance classes, the nonprofit Voice Colors Yoga started to make yoga available to people with autism, Waypoint Adventures organizes outdoor activities such as biking, rock climbing, and hiking for people with a range of disabilities, and Special Olympics Massachusetts has been teaching sports and holding competitions since 1971.
But there are few gyms designed, even in part, for neurodivergent people looking to build strength, coordination, and endurance in one-on-one or small-group settings, according to Dr. Emily Davidson, a pediatric physician focused on neurodevelopmental disabilities at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Davidson, who also runs inclusive yoga programs for people with Down syndrome, said people with neurodevelopmental differences exercise even less and are more sedentary than the general population, leaving them at higher risk for comorbidities such as obesity.
“Access is a huge issue,” she said. “Gaining skills and confidence and experience in an inclusive environment can spill over to what you do in the rest of life.”
That’s been true for JayJay Conrad. The 31-year-old tutor and advocate for people with autism said that as she got older, “I got a little pudgier than I wanted to be. I couldn’t keep up with the dog. . . I didn’t want to look a certain way. I wanted to feel a certain way — that way is confident.”
Conrad tried conventional gyms but felt out of place because her movements are jerky — like many autistic people, she has dyspraxia, a disorder that affects coordination — and because she wears sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones while working out to minimize sensory overload. Then she discovered the CrossFit classes at Firewall Fitness in Holliston, where she lives.
The workouts weren’t created for neurodivergent athletes, she said, but the gym’s instructors were adept at training everyone, from beginners to old hands, and allowed time to break down each drill so newcomers could learn them.
“I had tried other CrossFit gyms but felt that people were made uncomfortable by my presence,” Conrad said. “There is so much to be said for an environment that accepts you.”
When the Austins began working on the Inclusive Fitness business plan, they found perhaps 10 gyms across the country doing something along the lines of what they wanted to do. There are roughly 40,000 gyms and fitness studios nationwide, according to Greg Austin’s research.
Greg and Kristina — she continues in her marketing executive role at a large high-tech company — invested $100,000 and three years of sweat equity in the venture, and raised another $150,000 from a pair of investors. The money went for research, consultants, and other development work; the concept was tested with 16 families at the Bosse Sports Training center in Framingham.
With the help of one of their investors, the Austins were able to land the West Roxbury space at a discounted lease rate. The landlord became an equity investor in the company, and the low rent gave them time to design and build the facility and start up slowly. Inclusive Fitness opened during the pandemic, following all state social-distancing requirements; the couple just didn’t want to wait any longer.
The business has about 60 clients, with most in the 15- to 24-year-old range, though a few are in their 40s and 50s.
Greg Austin said he expects to close soon on $300,000 in additional financing and go for a larger round later this year.
Inclusive Fitness is offering in-person and virtual one-on-one training sessions and plans to begin small-group classes soon, at prices that are about in the middle of the range of those charged by conventional gyms and boutique studios. The company sells packages of 4, 8, and 16 sessions — each 45 minutes — with pricing around $99 per session when purchased in the 16-pack. Pricing for small-group sessions will run about half of that.
Inclusive Fitness is collaborating with local organizations and agencies to create opportunities to share costs and increase access. That’s important given the target market.
“Within this population, especially in adulthood, there are high rates of unemployment,” said Davidson, the Children’s Hospital doctor.
Inclusive Fitness tentatively plans to open a second site next year, likely in Metro West, and another on the North Shore. Greg Austin said he hopes to employ as many neurodivergent people as possible as coaches, at the front desk, and in the company’s business operations.
The goal: expand throughout New England, and eventually to major cities nationally.
Most startups don’t succeed. But even if Inclusive Fitness never expands beyond West Roxbury, Greg and Kristina Austin are already winners in my book.