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Is there a place for the neurotrainer?

Is there a place for the neurotrainer?

Tim Webster reports.

Back in the day we believed the brain was a pretty rigid structure and neural development was all but done and dusted by early childhood. Then researchers discovered the brain is plastic and it adapts to the stimulae it receives. In other words, the brain is changing all the time.

You may be familiar with the term ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. What this means is that, if you do, say or think something often enough, the neurons involved will connect and a new neural pathway will be created. The positive psychology industry is built on this.

So, what has the ability of the brain to make new neural pathways given the right stimulus (neuroplasticity) got to do with the exercise industry? Well, one of the more recent discoveries is that high-intensity exercise in particular produces brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and BDNF is effectively ‘Miracle Gro’ for the brain. In other words, the right kind of exercise stimulates neuroplasticity.

I’ve worked with neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s (PD), MS, stroke and, recently, brain injury. Parkinson’s closes down neural pathways in the brain and this process is progressive. Medication helps, and DEEP BRAIN Stimulation is an (expensive) option, but there is no cure.

A decade or more ago, some bright spark figured out that, if high-intensity exercise was ‘Miracle Gro’ for the brain, maybe it could help the PD brain make new neural pathways that would, to some degree, compensate for the loss of the old ones. And so programmes like LSVT Big, PD Warrior, Delay the Disease, Rock Steady Boxing, Counterpunch for Parkinson’s and PWR sprung up.

They started getting impressive results.

I was the lone exercise professional on a couple of these courses, so I found myself asking one simple question: If exercise facilitates neuroplasticity and neuroplasticity can help PD patients slow down the progression of the disease, why aren’t more exercise professionals embracing this opportunity?

There are around 145,000 Parkinson’s patients in the UK. There is a similar number of MS sufferers and stroke survivors – that’s approaching half a million people with neurodegenerative/autoimmune diseases who are being told exercise is good for them but don’t know where to get skilled help. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a market in which exercise professionals could and should flourish.

I believe the time could be right for a new category of exercise professional – let’s call them the neurotrainer – to emerge. This new category of neurotrainer exercise professional would be positioned between a regular PT and a physio/OT – and they would be able to talk the language of both.

What do you think? Send your thoughts to publish@fitpro.com or head over to Twitter to start a conversation.

About the author

Tim Webster has a physical education diploma from Loughborough University and 35 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry. The founder of Bodylife magazine, Tim served on the board of the FIA (now UK Active) for six years and has received the UK Health and Fitness Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Having presented at conferences around the world on programming and customer service, he is now resident in New Zealand, where he specialises in working with people with neurodegenerative conditions.

Tim Webster has written a foundation course for exercise professionals called Parkinson’s Pro. The course is designed to give PTs and group exercise teachers the skills they need to start working with PD patients – and it will be available on the FitPro Online Education Platform.

Where to next? Read about medical cannabis on the NHS.


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  1. Tina

    18 August

    Hi
    I receive your emails often but very rarely read them, but your article on being a ‘neurotrainer’ caught my attention as it seems to me there is a new wave of ‘talk’ amongst pseudo allied health professionals about neuro plasticity. I have been an OT for nearly 30 years and this has always been the basis for our treatment approach.
    I have been a fitness professional for nearly as long and often wonder why the fitness industry considerably lags the health industry as there are many opportunities, and you have mentioned a good number of them, where fitness professionals can fill the gap in providing health services.
    I am in Australia and one of the difficulties we encounter is that you almost need a degree to be recognised as a valid prescriber of exercise, and fitness services are not funded under the national – or most private – health schemes. Therefore, the cost is directly borne by the client and those with the health issues you are speaking about often struggle with the cost. It’s a bit of a no win situation because, unfortunately, the health system is based on a sickness, medical model rather than a wellness model.
    I have worked in public cardiac rehabilitation for over 10 years, but that is a result of my OT qualification rather than my fitness expertise. I have also worked with many of the conditions that you have mentioned, and some you haven’t, and am often perplexed as to why fitness professionals aren’t more closely aligned with allied health professionals as they have a lot to offer given the value of exercise with most disease types.
    I believe the fitness industry has worth, viability and validity in working with this type of clientele. However, being recognised as such is often difficult. Unless you have a strong working relationship with GPs and allied health professionals, it can be a battle to develop that clinical aspect to a fitness business.
    It is definitely worth your encouragement of personal trainers and other fitness professionals to consider this market base, but I wonder if the effort should be initially directed to winning the favour, respect and professional trust of the people who regularly have these clients in their care. Many of the programs you mentioned are often run by allied health professionals, but needn’t be. I think it is pertinent to step in and wave the fitness professional banner regarding our valuable contribution to the ongoing health care of people with these disease types.

    • Olivia Hubbard

      22 August

      Hi Tina,

      Thank you for your email, great to hear from you. That’s a shame you don’t often open the emails, is there a reason for this? what can we do to encourage your engagement? I am in full agreement, we must close the gap between the medical profession and the fitness industry. Yet, we must also ensure that the correct education is delivered to our clients who put the upmost faith and trust in their personal trainers. It sounds like you have delivered some thoroughly valuable education around cardiac rehabilitation and I thank you for your continued support to the fitness industry. Would you be interested in sharing your story and opinion on the FitPro blog? Do drop us a line at: publish@fitpro.com

      Best wishes,
      Olivia (Editor, Fitpro magazine)

  2. Jane Cooper

    18 August

    The Neurotrainer
    Interesting article, we need to be aware we are in a time where more and more are being diagnosed with various forms of brain dis….ease. There is in my opinion a place for the neurotrainer and will become more in demand as time unfolds especially to support not only the persona affected but also as a support to the carer
    I am currently working with a client with early onset Alzheimer’s because of my understanding of the disease, my wealth of knowledge of how it impacts on the physical body, and what happen’s to not only those affected but the families too. So for what it is worth it will be a very valid course, I hope you are successful.

    • Olivia Hubbard

      22 August

      Hi Jane,

      Thank you for taking the time to write to us. We really appreciate your support and I wish you every success and enjoyment with all your work in the fitness industry.

      Best wishes,

      Olivia (Editor, Fitpro magazine)

  3. Medeana

    19 August

    Hi Very interested in reading details of your Parkinsons Pro online course but can’t seem to find it from the link.
    Can you help?

    • Olivia Hubbard

      22 August

      Hi Medeana,

      Great to hear you are interested in the course, the course will be live in mid-September, apologies if there was any confusion with the post. Do keep checking our social media pages for updates.

      Best wishes,

      Olivia (Editor, Fitpro magazine)

  4. Penelope Smith

    19 August

    Re ‘Neurotrainer’
    As a L4 fitness instructor I started working with people with Parkinson’s several years ago, became qualified to prescribe exercise for people with long-term neurological conditions, attended Dance for Parkinson’s trainer training in the UK and US, and completed PDWarrior instructor training. I work with support from the local Parkinson’s branch, nurse and physiotherapist.
    It has been my experience that exercise provision has to be continuous and varied to be effective, and to that end I provide classes in Exercise to Music, Tai Chi and Pilates; also a Nordic Walking course incorporating PDWarrior principles alongside similar Intensive indoor sessions. Support via live online training assists to ensure participants can work at maintaining their abilities even at home. Basically we are holding the fort against the onset of deterioration, and it needs to be held on all fronts all the time.
    The benefits are impressive and rewarding, but it seems that the Fitness Instructor community is only recently embracing the opportunities. Certainly I have found myself having to explain that no, I am not a physiotherapist, professional dancer, nurse or well-meaning amateur with a Parkinson’s relative. ‘Neurotrainer’ is a possible title I guess, but would need to be underpinned by more than a couple of days of workshops if the qualification is to carry any weight.
    I would be happy to discuss further if you are intending to move forward with this.

    • Olivia Hubbard

      22 August

      Hi Penelope,

      Thank you for your message and for your comments surrounding the Parkinson’s course. The course will be live on our FitPro courses website from mid-September. I would be very interested to find out more about your work and your involvement in the community. If you would be interested, we would really like to hear more about the work you do. Do drop us a line at: publish@fitpro.com

      Look forward to hearing from you,

      Best wishes,

      Olivia ( Editor, Fitpro magazine)

  5. Stephen Barr

    19 August

    Hi
    You’ve given a link on Tim Webster’s piece on neurotraining but I cant find the course.
    Link you’ve given is https://fitpro.com/courses/index.cfm

    Can you provide a direct link to the course pleae, not just the menu, as this is something I’d like to complete.

    Thanks

    • Olivia Hubbard

      22 August

      Hi Stephen,

      I hope you are well, thank you for your message. The course will be live from mid-September, apologies for any confusion, we had some final updates to make.

      Do let me know if you have any further questions.

      Best wishes,

      Olivia (Editor, Fitpro magazine)

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