How do you heal from a bad injury or serious disease—and keep your career on track?
As a fitness professional, you expect to be healthy in order to perform well in your job—and your life. What happens when you become extremely ill, get injured or learn that you have a disease? How do you work with management so you can keep your job? How do you address your new limitations? Find out what other fitness pros have done to handle the physical, emotional and financial challenges associated with challenges like these.
Even though you may be coping with major pain, it’s crucial to act professionally.
“Approach your supervisor as soon as you know you will need to take time off to get treatment or recover,” says Mary Bratcher, MA, DipLC, a life coach who specializes in small-business development at The BioMechanics in San Diego. “Advance notice, if possible, will help him make the necessary scheduling arrangements that will be required in your absence. If you think you might be able to work in some capacity, let your manager know of your anticipated capabilities so he can determine what duties would best suit you during your treatment or recovery.”
Lisa M. Elsinger, MEd, group exercise instructor trainer and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, struggled with osteoarthritis for 10 years before having a Birmingham Hip™ resurfacing surgery to relieve the pain. “If your manager is very businesslike, don’t approach her when you are an emotional wreck,” advises Elsinger. “This can create a barrier to communication. Be matter-of-fact, and detail practical strategies for dealing with the situation. Let your supervisor know what you feel you can do as an employee and what you are not able to do, and remind her of your dedication to the organization. Ask for suggestions on how you might contribute as you recover. You may even be able to do some work at home.”
Also, if you think you might be out of work for a long time, know your legal rights when it comes to extended leaves of absence for medical reasons, says Bratcher. “The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period, job protection and medical benefit protection under certain circumstances,” she says. “However, if you do not meet the criteria for FMLA, several individual state laws cover medical leave and absences.”
In an ideal situation you would be able to continue working while coping with pain. Here is how a few fitness pros managed their pain.
When Elsinger was struggling with osteoarthritis, she used various strategies to let her keep teaching. “I asked several students if they would be willing to be designated ‘demonstrators’ of certain moves, and they enthusiastically agreed. I also challenged students to explore their auditory learning skills. As a result, they reported having an easier time following in other instructors’ classes.”
At home Elsinger tested the limits of her range of motion and experimented with various movements to learn what she could and could not do. “During class I often stopped moving to explain, coach or simply cue and make eye contact. I kept the class energy levels high through cuing and communication—along with a bit of comedy, which went a long way in making class enjoyable!”
In 2007, Jennifer Tipton, MA, RYT, a San Diego–based yoga/fitness instructor and personal trainer, was injured in a car accident. “My neck was seriously affected as a result of the accident. My range of motion suffered; I was unable to lift weights above my head or comfortably perform many of the yoga poses that I was accustomed to. I was forced to attend physical therapy sessions and modify my teaching. I also learned to adjust my work with clients so I was not putting unnecessary strain on my neck.”
If you can’t meet the physical demands of your current classes or sessions, brainstorm other options. Elsinger suggests listing all of the ways you can still work as a fitness professional. “You may find that the health issue takes you in a direction you have not considered before,” she says. “I might not have become a graduate student if I had not had my hip situation.”
Teach Different Types of Classes. When Elsinger was dealing with her hip pain, she began teaching more strength and conditioning classes and more core conditioning. This helped her cut down on the cardio moves that pained her hip.
Become a Manager. When Tipton was in physical therapy, she had less time to spend with clients, so she lost some income. But she was resourceful: “I took on the contract position of group fitness coordinator to maintain my level of income after I was injured.”
Write Newsletters and Articles. Writing articles for local newspaper, or consumer or trade publications is another way to raise income as you recover. Elsinger constructed a facility newsletter and worked on tasks she could do while sitting at a desk; for example, creating participant handouts.
If you need to miss work for health reasons, first use up any paid sick leave, vacation time or comp time you may have accrued, says Bratcher. “If you run out, consider asking your co-workers or boss if they would donate some of their sick days or leave time to help you cover some of the time you are off,” she says.
What if there is no way to keep money coming in while you are off work? “Then limit the amount of money going out, but don’t ignore financial obligations,” says Bratcher. “On the contrary, contact companies that you owe money to and ask them if you can make arrangements for a temporary payment reduction or alternative payment plan. Don’t let your financial obligations spin out of control while you are off work, since that will cause more stress in the long term and slow your overall recovery.”
Coping with poor health is no fun, but hopefully, in most cases, you will heal and feel better. “Don’t panic,” says Bratcher. “In the grand scheme of your life span, your time off work and subsequent recovery period are but a drop in the bucket. It may sound clichéd, but the most important thing in your life really is your health. If you sacrifice that by rushing back too quickly or worrying about what others think, you will soon discover that there are a lot of other areas in your life that will suffer.”