Fitness and healthcare should be two sides of the same coin.

Fitness and healthcare should be two sides of the same coin. As consumers of both, it makes sense to maintain fitness and manage any health issues that arise as part of a continuum. However, the provision of fitness and healthcare is all too often dichotomized. Geographically, the two are usually separate. You go to a hospital or clinic to be treated when something goes wrong and you go to the leisure center or gym to work on your fitness. Politically, they are managed by distinct departments with different priorities. As professionals, we are trained to work in one or the other. Sometimes it feels like never the twain shall meet! In this article, I discuss my experience as a healthcare professional attempting to cross the boundary and make some friends in fitness.

Healthcare has been my home for over two decades. I’ve worked in the UK NHS and in the private healthcare market, specializing in vestibular disorders. I feel like I have a reasonable grasp of how it all works. I’m quite busy helping people who are dizzy so why on earth would I start thinking about helping people who aren’t?

First, there is the evidence. Us healthcare types who help people with inner ear disorders know that vestibular exercise is effective in managing symptoms and improving quality of life. Systematic reviews back up our personal experience. However, there is also recent evidence that the same exercises can reduce fall risk, maintain balance and improve performance in healthy individuals as well. These people never pitch up in healthcare. They are out getting fit and working with fitness professionals rather than bothering doctors. But are they doing as well as they could be?

Second, statistics show that as many as 32% of people over 40 have an undiagnosed vestibular problem that they are completely unaware of. They are not dizzy and will never present to see a healthcare professional like me. But they are at increased fall risk. The only way to reach this expanding demographic and reduce that risk is through the fitness industry.

The final piece of the puzzle is that most exercise formats do not include enough components that work the vestibular system. I know this from my own fitness experience as a client and from visiting other classes and gyms to investigate what goes on. I understand how the vestibular system works and I know that fitness programmes, even those with a balance or core stability focus, are not pushing the vestibular button. Fitness clients, sports people, and athletes are missing out on potential benefits. I want to use the skill set I gained in healthcare to help fitness professionals to embed vestibular exercise within their existing programmes, to raise awareness of the role the vestibular system plays in balance and optimize outcomes for more people.

So, how has it been stepping out of my healthcare comfort zone into the brave new world of fitness? Well, it has been a massive learning curve! I work in a very niche area, even within healthcare, but I naively thought that everyone would be very interested in my ideas. I laugh about that now! The fitness industry is huge and the level of existing knowledge about the vestibular function is generally very low. I am coming in as an unknown with an unfamiliar idea. The good news is that there is a structure of recognized training endorsement which I have been able to tap into by working with CIMSPA. Everyone is also very friendly and interested to hear about new ideas. In this respect, I have found fitness to be a more open-minded arena than healthcare. Changing the way people do things in healthcare is notoriously difficult but the fitness professionals I have engaged with so far seem more open to change and willing to embrace anything that might improve outcomes for their clients or give them a competitive edge. Of course, everyone is working with tight budgets and within time constraints. And there are always politics to consider. I’m used to that having worked in the NHS!

It’s early days. We set up our company in April 2017. But, so far, I like having one foot in healthcare and one foot in fitness. I think we could both learn a lot from each other and I can really see tremendous gains for our clients if we worked together more often.

You can find out more about Vestibular Health on our Facebook (@vestibularhealth), Twitter or Instagram (@VestibHealth). We’d love to hear from you.

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Fiona Barker

Fiona Barker

Fiona Barker is a clinical scientist with a special interest in vestibular disorders. She has a PhD in Clinical and Experimental Medicine from the University of Surrey.
Fiona Barker

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