Peter Morel - Adapted Fitness for Seniors and People With Disabilities

Peter Morel - Adapted Fitness for Seniors and People With Disabilities

Fitness For All Podcast: Episode 10

Welcome to another edition of Fitness for All with Cam Jenkins, sponsored by Lebert Fitness.

In this episode, Cam talks with Peter Morel. Peter Morel has been an advocate for health and fitness for persons with disabilities for over 25 years. Born with Spina Bifida Peter has devoted his life to helping persons with disabilities reap the benefits of health and fitness.

An award-winning fitness expert he is the President of TopShape Inc; and co-manages the TopShape Fitness Studio in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been an adaptive fitness consultant to many businesses, fitness facilities, and government programs. His expert services are sought all over the world. 

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*The following podcast has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Show Notes - Episode 10

On today's show for the Lebert Fitness for All podcast, we have Peter Morel, founder and co-owner of Top Shape Fitness Consulting Incorporated. Peter, how are you doing today?

So, can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and how you started your fitness journey?

Alright. It's a pretty long story, but I'll try to condense as much as possible. We've been in the health and fitness industry for 27 years now. We own and operate a fully accessible fitness facility in Ottawa called the Top Shape Fitness Studio, which is working with everyone from able bodied athletes all the way to people with many, many types of mobility impairments.

How we first got started, I was in the nightclub industry 30 some years ago and quite disillusioned about where I was and where I was going within that industry. Obviously, it's a go nowhere industry, you can only go so far, and my next door neighbour, who is my business partner now, Mike Hayden, was working in a bar himself and actually he was going to university. He was in Carlton University taking a law degree. I sat down with him one day and said, listen, I’m just completely disillusioned with what it is I'm doing, I need to find another line of work. He said, well, let's sit down, let's go through things that you like to do. One of the things that kept coming up was I love to go to the gym. I was working in a nightclub, not necessarily the healthiest place to be, but I still managed to get to the gym three or four days a week. Back in those days, health and fitness was really starting to boom, the industry was really starting to get quite large and people were coming up with new ideas and new classes and all kinds of stuff.

Mike said, why don't you take a fitness course or personal training course or something somewhere? He said, I'll even go with you just for fun to take it, kind of as a continuing education course. So, I enrolled in my first of four certification courses, which was at the YMCA here in Ottawa, and he jumped in and I opened about three months after graduating from that course and getting a degree in personal training from the YMCA of Canada. I opened my own business called Top Shape Personal Training, where I was doing in home, traveling from house to house, doing in-home training. One of the directors at the Y came up to Mike and I and said, we are developing a pilot project for the Y of Canada throughout the whole country to bring in personal training in the YMCA. If you guys help me, I'll hire you guys on as my first two personal trainers.

So, we were definitely on board with that and we helped build the program in Canada for the Y in personal training. We were hired on here in Ottawa at the Metro Central YMCA downtown and worked there for three and a half years while at the same time we built our business up and then in 1995 we bought our first property, built a gym, opened our private personal training studio and the rest is history.

That is a really detailed and exciting story, considering where you started from to get into a new career altogether.

It was a definite need to change careers, and that was the biggest thing that fuelled the whole idea. We took more certification courses and we audited kinesiology courses at the University of Ottawa through a friend of ours, Dr. Reid, who, as far as I know, still teaches there. We've been doing adaptive training and I've been working as a specialist in adaptive training working with para-athletes, mobility impairments; we have absolutely everything you could possibly think of. I work with cancer patients to PTSD, to amputees, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury. I've worked with the Invictus Games with the injured in the military for about 16 years now, so it's growing quite a bit in the last twenty-five years.


Absolutely. How do you train each individual person that comes in; because everyone has something different and you talk about how you're one of the leading experts in training for adaptive athletes. So how did that come about?

Well, again, we were working at the Y and I was thinking that I needed a little bit of a niche, obviously being a person with spina bifida myself and being an adaptive person, I said, that would be a great niche to get into because there's not a lot of people working in that field in the health and fitness industry, in Ontario, for that matter, especially here in Ottawa. So, I started to develop a program and I developed a program over the years and now I've got a 32-page training manual called Adaptive Fitness for Professionals, where I travel all over Canada and train personal trainers in adaptive fitness protocols to teach them how to work with a huge variety of mobility impairments.

Basically, the physiology is exactly the same; the way that I or you or anyone with a mobility impairment bounces back from fitness training is exactly the same as any other human being on the planet. The only thing that needs to be changed is the adaptation to the program itself to allow for the differences in mobility impairments.

There's no universal program. There's no cookie cutter program that works. You have to be, like you said, very, very, very individualistic because one person with CP and another person with CP are two completely different things. One person, depending on the spinal cord injury; I could have two guys with Level C4 spinal cord injuries, and one has tricep ability and one doesn't. So, it's very individualistic and what we try to stress as much as we possibly can when teaching other fitness professionals about working with people with mobility impairments, is the evaluation process; the open ended questions and what to ask and how to really develop an individual program for each person that works for them and how to adapt the program for that person.

With you talking about this, I was also wondering about motivation, because that's a big part of it and how you can motivate your clients. Is it the same motivating, whether it's an able bodied or a person that's adaptive, or do you find that you have to motivate the adaptive or is it just kind of all individualized?

It’s fairly basic, motivational techniques are fairly basic across the board and I find that people with mobility impairments are just as motivated as anyone else. A para-athlete is just as motivated as any other athlete to get done and to win and to be a champion than anyone else. Same with anyone who comes to me with a prescription from a doctor for health and fitness. Somebody with a with a traumatic brain injury, for example, comes in and says, my doctor says I need to get in shape, well, then obviously there's their motivation. The doctors push them to tell them that they need to get fit and most people that have any knowledge of health and fitness know that it's obviously a good thing to do no matter what anyways.

As far as motivating them, we have a very extensive cancellation procedure. If you're just calling me up on the day of and saying, I don't feel like working out, you lose your session with your trainer on that day and you're still ending up paying $85 dollars an hour. There's your motivation to get into the gym, so, most people will pretty much show up. That's a good start. Once they're here, then they're mine and or one of our trainers and then we are going to lead you through possibly the best workout that we can for that individual, depending on, again, the design of the program.

You really scared me when you said once they're here, they're mine.

Oh, yeah. They belong to us and that's it, we're getting work done. You get to the door we’re going to get a workout in no matter what and it's going to be the best workout possible for you. That's what we what we do at Top Shape; we make sure that we know absolutely everything we possibly can about each client.

Our evaluation procedure is extremely extensive. It's one of the most extensive evaluations in the industry. We do flexibility tests, strength tests, endurance tests, cardio tests, hormone analysis, dietary analysis. We look at absolutely everything because we want to know everything we possibly can about where you are as far as your level of fitness is right now and then we design a program step by step by step to get you to where you want to be.

Yeah, that seems very intensive to go over that. So, when somebody walks through the door, what's your tag line or how do you introduce yourself and your company? For a first session, do you talk to them in regards to all of those tests?

Well, most of the time it begins either with a phone call or a website search and, or both someone will look at our website and then give us a call and say, I'm looking to get in shape, I really don't know what I'm doing in the gym, I know I need a personal trainer. How can you guys help?
Well, first of all, come on down, we'll give you a complimentary consultation, we'll show you the facility, we'll sit and chat with the customer about what their goals are and what it is they want to do and what we think we can do to help them. Then from there, we design a fitness evaluation for that person.

So, the first step is come in, do the consult. Second step, do the fitness evaluation, which takes on average about an hour and a half to complete the full evaluation. Then what they do is they go home, we design the program, we consult with whoever it is we need to consult with. If we need to consult with a doctor or a dietician or whatever the case may be, we do that consultation process with them. We design that person's program. They come back in again, we do a full orientation session with the client, one on one in the gym with the trainer teaching them their breathing protocols, cardiovascular protocols and we go over the exercises on their program, the technique, the form and all of that, one on one with them. Then as they begin the personal training, we reiterate all of the things that are taught on the orientation.


I know that being a trainer such as yourself, some trainers think of a certain tool, or a piece of equipment that are their favourites. As an example for Lebert fitness, they love to use their Lebert equalizers to help get people in shape. Is there any such tool that’s your go to?

We have a lot of stuff in our facility, and depending again, if it's an able-bodied person, obviously they can use absolutely everything that's in the facility. If it's someone with a mobility impairment that's impaired and can't transfer from a wheelchair to a seat, for example, we have a lot of things that we can just pull the seats right out and they can roll right in with their chair and use the equipment.

So, the equipment is very much adaptable and it's fairly simple to adapt almost any piece of equipment in any facility. I pride myself on being able to teach any personal trainer to adapt any program for any person anywhere in any facility anywhere in the world. Even with just a set of dumbbells, you can get a pretty good workout for almost your complete body, if you know what you're doing.

It’s pretty safe to say we can adapt to almost anything in our facility to anyone that comes in. We really haven't been stumped yet, knock on wood, which is a good thing.

We have a huge variety of people you can possibly think of. We've had everybody, amputees, wheelchairs, spinal cord, PTSD, brain injuries. We've got cancer survivors.

That's good that you have a lot of different equipment and that you're so adaptable because that's what the world is like. It's kind of a time where you're going to have the baby boomers come in and they're getting to that age now where they're going to be having a lot of different disabilities. I think the world is going to have to be adaptable because a lot of the population is going that way.

We're looking at 4.7 million people in Canada right now that say they have some form of mobility impairment and that's growing, like you say, with the baby boomers, that's growing every day. It's definitely going in the wrong direction for the country, but the right direction for us at Top Shape. It's going to create a fairly large health care strain if a lot of these people aren't taught that they can keep in shape and be in shape and learn how to get there relatively quickly.

As for the Ottawa area, because that's where your club is, is there a lot of word of mouth to get people to join your club?

We get a lot of word of mouth. We get a lot of hits from our website. We also get a ton of referral work from doctors and physicians and different clinics in the area and we have a lot of specialty programs that are really, really popular.

My business partner, Mike Hayden, is the person who runs our PARE prep course. We do military, police, fire and first responder’s courses for people to pass the physical fitness evaluations that each of those different jobs need to be able to pass and get into the courses. So that's a pretty popular program that fills up really, really quick every month here at Top Shape.

We have six trainers on staff that are all experts in different fields, so, depending on what a person is looking to achieve and what they want to do when they come to us, we try to set them up with the proper trainer to be able to make sure that they're achieving the goals.

You mentioned some of the programs you have. Can you talk a little bit more about some of them and maybe one of the programs that sets you apart from some of the others?

Yeah, some of the more popular ones we have right now, the PARE prep, is running really, really crazy. We have the Adaptive Fitness Program where we're working with a ton of different people with everything you can possibly imagine. We have a weight management program run by one of our trainers, Andrea, who works with people that have a weight management issue and body composition problems.

We have a sports specific training conditioning specialist on hand, Yanik, who is a college level basketball player, played in NCAA in the US, played college here in Canada and became a strength and conditioning specialist. So, if we get somebody who comes in and says my son is an up-and-coming hockey player, needs a good trainer, needs a good program, Yanik is the guy that will either work one on one with that person or he will design the program, the periodization for the cycles of the different programs for that hockey player and one of the trainers will establish that program and work with the person one on one.

So that’s a lot about the specialty programs and then we have a couple of trainers that are just generalists. If you're just coming in looking to get fit, you want work on your diet, if you want to change your body composition, then we have trainers that can take those clients on at any time as well.

Perfect. I definitely have to ask about your para sports as well, because we have been combatants as far as para ice hockey. Can you talk about the achievements that you've had in the para sports world, because I know you did para ice hockey and I believe you did rowing?

I was a Paralympic rower for eight years on the Canadian program and went to two world championships. I worked with some para rowing and developed a para rowing program here in Ottawa with the Ottawa Rowing Club and I was working with some of the athletes there. I've worked with Canadian National sledge hockey athletes in our gyms; we've got some medal winners there. I’ve worked with a Paralympic power lifter, skiers, a para sailor and now I'm working with a potential world champion canoe-kayaker in para kayak.

There’s been a lot of good athletes who have come through our doors and they motivate us, and they motivate a lot of our clientele. Our clients see somebody coming in and working as hard as they do and they can't believe it and they look at them and say, wow, that guy really trains hard. I'm like that guy is a Paralympic athlete and he has the motivation and the drive with his disability to come in every day and work out as hard as he can so, your excuse is invalid. It really wakes a lot of people up when they see people come in and train with the mobility impairments that they have; the able-bodied clientele that we have really come around and say, I have no excuse not to get in the gym, which is great for us.

Absolutely it is, and it just goes to show your character and how good it is, because I was asking about your sports career and you brought it back to other people and other people helping themselves. That’s you and that’s a good thing.

I rowed on the team. I played sledge hockey, as you know, for just 20 years now and not on the competitive level, but local competitive level, it's a great sport. Love it. It's one of the best para sports there is out there. Then I got into rowing just for fun, for recreation one day, and the para coach who was looking to start a program here in Ottawa came up to me and said, do you want to compete, are you interested in competing? I said I guess, if you think I have the potential to compete at the highest level, then sure I’m in. I would love to try to push myself and see if I can use my skills as a strength coach and personal trainer to get myself to that level, and if I can, then I'm pretty sure I can help anyone else do it as well.

Absolutely. To finish off our little chat today, what is it that you've learned over the years from either your fitness, training people, being in para sports? Has there been one common theme that you go by now because of what you've learned over the years?

I think the biggest one is that there's no mass approach to health and fitness, it needs to be an individualistic approach. It needs to be fine-tuned for every person that comes through the door; there's no such thing as a cookie cutter program for everybody. Not everyone can train the same level, the same intensity, the same amount of time every day. Everybody needs to be looked at as exactly that, as an individual and they need to be taken care of as an individual and they need to be trained for every little thing that may change within their life that could affect their chances of success in the gym.

Absolutely, well said. Well, thank you so much, Peter, for being on the podcast today. We do really appreciate it. You've been listening to the founder and co-owner of Top Shape Fitness, and that's in Ottawa. Did you want to give some of your details in case anyone wants to get in touch with you?

Sure. They can look at our website. It's and our phone number is (613) 236-3670, and they can message me at and I'd be happy to answer any questions anyone has. It was a pleasure to talk to you, my friend, it's been a long time and I hope to see you this winter.

Absolutely, you'll probably see me around the rink and don't take it personally when I don’t go for your team because I’m Cruisers all the way. Thanks for being on the podcast, and I'm sure we'll chat soon.


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