Fitness therapy seen as extension to physical therapy

January 21, 2012
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When Greg Kirk worked for a year as an athletic trainer at the Detroit-based Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, he noticed it wasn’t uncommon for physical therapy patients to return weeks or months after their treatment had ended. Worse still were therapists’ and patients’ shrugs of resignation that returning for therapy was, for some, inevitable.

The tendency for additional physical therapy convinced Kirk five years ago to launch his Southfield-based business, Fitness Therapy Unlimited, a mobile, post-physical therapy provider that includes massage, land, aquatic and medical nutrition therapies intended for those with acute physical disabilities caused by auto accidents, job-related injuries or chronic disorders.

FTU offers these various modalities so the staff can tailor specific goals for total body rehabilitation, said Kirk. FTU usually starts by training people for basic activities of daily living, and then progresses to strength training to restore functionality to as many parts of the body as feasible.

Fitness therapy is not a clever marketing term, said Kirk, who spoke last week to members of the Case Management Society of America at the Bluff Banquet and Conference Center in Grand Rapids, his first speech in the area. Think of fitness therapy as a cross between fitness training and physical therapy.

As defined by the International Sports Sciences Association in Carpinteria, Calif. — the teaching institution and certification agency for fitness trainers, athletic trainers, aerobics instructors and medical professionals — fitness therapy picks up where physical therapy leaves off. ISSA instruction is based on exercise assessment, nutritional planning, fitness instruction, sports medicine practice and post-rehabilitation training.

Kirk said there’s a pattern with patients’ injuries. They first go through the medical care to address their injuries, followed by physical therapy to help them function and regain basic strength. However, many people are discharged from physical therapy before they are strong enough or have enough endurance to function independently at home. That’s where fitness therapy can step in, to improve strength, flexibility and range of motion to the entire body, not just the area that was injured, which is physical therapy’s focus, Kirk said.

Kirk said his staff also works to ingrain in patients a can-do attitude, borrowing a page from adaptive sports, which developed out of rehabilitation programs and include a wide range of sports that have been adapted to be played by people with disabilities.

“We use adaptability, not disability,” said Kirk. “You have to adapt to strength rather than to weaknesses.

“This is a new way to improve the system,” added Kirk. “Fitness therapy furthers the progress of clients’ physical ability. I’m hoping that when they’re done with physical therapy, they’ve gained enough knowledge to continue on with fitness therapy. Our goal is to return the clients’ functionality as close as possible to before their injuries.”

Kirk said he is not critical of physical therapy, nor does he see his business in competition with his physical therapy counterparts. Rather, he sees fitness therapy continuing where physical therapy leaves off. Problems may surface when patients do not continue their at-home exercise routines, sometimes because where they live is too small a space to realistically exercise in, or the caregivers responsible for ensuring patients received correct and adequate exercise don’t have a clear idea what was expected of them.

Since FTU’s founding in August 2006, Kirk said fitness therapy is gaining a receptive audience from members of the medical community.

“Many physicians are realizing that fitness therapy is an effective option after physical therapy in order to ensure patients continue to progress in their rehabilitation efforts,” said Kirk. “Although the concept of fitness is not necessarily new, it is a new practice for physicians to utilize fitness therapy as a continuum of care in the manner they are now.”

So far, said Kirk, FTU has agreements with about 20 facilities statewide that qualify as outpatient rehabilitation centers, meaning they are Americans With Disabilities Act regulated and have wheelchair accessible pools, showers and locker rooms. Kirk recently expanded FTU’s reach of services in the Greater Grand Rapids area through agreements with the Visser YMCA in Grandville and the Wolverine YMCA in Belmont.

Kirk said he made FTU a mobile service because some clients face inherent transportation programs. FTU can go to clients’ homes, when feasible.

Kirk said he considers Grand Rapids fertile ground for growing his business on the west side of the state because it’s home to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, the Spectrum Health System’s consortium of hospitals, Hope Network and Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan’s Grand Rapids campus.

“They’re big players in our industry,” said Kirk. “I want Fitness Therapy to be more than just in Detroit. This is the place to be because of the quality of care from great medical providers.”

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