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How an occupational therapist carved out her niche with STOTT PILATES® to help her clients improve their health, fitness and quality of life

Combining occupational therapy and Pilates for greater health outcomes

There are many parallels between the practice of occupational therapy and Pilates— both look at the body as a whole, integrated system that’s affected by the mind-body connection. Occupational therapy also considers how an individual performs their various occupations within their environments at home, at work and in the community at all stages of their life.

Sandra Stessun has long combined her passion for fitness with her professional vocation as an occupational therapist, at one point in her early career working at an acute rehab hospital by day and teaching group fitness by night.

While it wasn’t a traditional career path for an occupational therapist in 2003, she eventually carved out her own niche through fitness— leading the group fitness program at the three Spa Lady clubs in Edmonton, Canada, as an occupational therapist.

“It was a new and unmarked path, but the more I navigated it, the more it fit,” she says. “Occupational therapy applies therapeutic movement and activity to help people function in their daily lives. With my training in movement analysis, biomechanics and anatomy, I was able to teach highly effective movement classes and mentor and educate my team of instructors.”

Rehab Reformer

Photo credit: Jason Row

In the early 2000s, yoga and Pilates were just starting to become popular fitness club offerings.

Curious about Pilates and what it could offer her clients, Sandra and her instructors took their Mat Pilates instructor training course. But it wasn’t until Sandra got on a Reformer and completed her STOTT PILATES® Equipment instructor training certification through Merrithew® that she realized the symbiosis between Pilates and rehabilitation medicine.

“When I first took my Reformer training, I saw so much clarity in how learning more about movement, through Pilates can help people move better, thus live better,” she says. “Pilates also serves to connect the mind and body, which is so important in purposeful human movement.

“The principles of Pilates align with my occupational therapy practice. My Pilates training has complemented my training, my knowledge, experiences and values as an occupational therapist. I use Pilates and the Pilates equipment to better teach and treat my clients. I am a big fan of the Merrithew training and the ongoing education offered and the quality of the equipment.”

Her discovery of Pilates also launched her on a new career path. After five years as Group Fitness Director at Spa Lady, she decided to open her own studio-clinic Fit 2 Function out of her house in 2008 with one V2 Max Plus Reformer and a Split-Pedal Stability Chair.

Fit 2 Function studio

During her time in various health care settings and with over 13 years of experience in the fitness industry, Sandra started Fit 2 Function with a few word-of-mouth referrals.

After being endorsed by a well-regarded physiotherapist in the city, Sandra soon found herself busy with acute and complex rehabilitation clients. She still is a referral-based studio only with no website or social media presence.

Her clients, who are between the ages of 11 and 80, range from having complex medical or rehab needs, to being high-performance athletes. Many of them have been with her for five to 12 years and stay on as functional fitness clients.

“I can’t even begin to say how important a role using Pilates movement, and especially the Merrithew Pilates equipment, has in rehabilitation medicine. I have seen clients with acute injuries and post-surgery (spine, shoulder, hips, knees, ankles as well as internal surgeries). I also have used Pilates to help clients with multiple sclerosis, scoliosis, nerve injuries, muscle strains and general faulty neuromuscular firing patterns,” she says.

“I believe in multidisciplinary health care. As an occupational therapist, I help my clients move and function better, however I also accredit part of my success to being able to collaborate with physiotherapists, physicians, registered dieticians, massage therapists and psychologists. Referrals to other clinicians when appropriate, and communication with other clinicians, is key to offering my clients the best care possible. The team approach to wellness is always best.”

Helping rehab patients access care during the pandemic

Dealing with the many openings and closings throughout the various lockdowns during the pandemic has been a challenge for even the most successful small businesses.

Sandra has reopened her studio for private therapy sessions and some semi-private sessions only with strict cleaning practices and screening protocols. During sessions, she and her clients both wear masks and gloves.

She also started offering small group fitness and private training online through Zoom, a first for her and something she plans to continue in the future.

“I feel that this provided a sense of connection for all of us – and feedback from clients was that it provided some structure and purpose to their week – something to look forward to. I loved seeing everyone’s smiling faces, even if it was only on the screen,” she says.

With an upcoming move to Vancouver Island a province away, Sandra plans to continue training her Edmonton clients virtually as requested. Many of them already own Reformers or Stability Chairs or are now planning on purchasing them so they can continue their movement journey with her from afar.

“I have really enjoyed learning new skills and working virtually with clients. I have always been a hands-on therapist, but I’m happy to adapt due to the pandemic and I’m so happy I am still able to provide services to my clients.”

Looking towards her future on Vancouver Island, Sandra’s got plans to take more courses and training, to learn from, meet and collaborate with other health and wellness professionals, and possibly organize some retreats for clients once the pandemic is over.

“I hope to inspire more health care professionals to bridge the gap with me between wellness and illness. I aspire, along with my allied health colleagues and colleagues in the fitness industry, to educate and exemplify the importance of good human movement, daily therapeutic activity and exercise in not only illness and disease prevention, management and recovery, but also for proactive health care.”

Find out more about the STOTT PILATES Rehab Program >

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