Exercise Science Alumna Discovers Passion for Physical Therapy

Michelle Leary Headshot

Michelle Leary, BS ('09), was an economics major studying abroad in Switzerland when she signed up for the Pilates class that changed her life. Taking the class led to teaching one, and soon she decided heart rates interested her more than compound interest rates. She returned to the U.S., enrolled in Bastyr University's undergraduate exercise science program and now works as a medical wellness director at Pinnacle Physical Therapy in Covington, Washington.

She spoke to us about the series of discoveries that led her to work she loves.

Tell us about your work.

I run our post-rehabilitation programs, designing aerobic and light strength-training programs for patients. Anybody who's being discharged from our orthopedic, cardiac and neural therapies comes to my team. We also get referrals from outside physicians. We help patients start exercise and lifestyle-modification routines. So for the cardiac program, we'll monitor someone's blood pressure before, during and after a workout. For patients with diabetes, we do similar things with blood-sugar levels. We also have dietitians who work with them on nutrition.

That's a long ways from economics. What was that journey like?

I started teaching Pilates in 2005. I was living in Switzerland for a study abroad semester, and heard about Pilates, and wanted to try it. I loved it, and then they needed an instructor at the gym. I started teaching and really fell in love with human anatomy and physiology and how fascinating it was. I came back to the U.S. and started taking science classes and haven't looked back.

What happened then?

I enrolled at Bastyr, and while I was a student I worked as the geriatric fitness coordinator for The Bellettini, a retirement community in Bellevue. Before that, I didn't know how much affinity I had for seniors. They're an underserved population — even those who aren't financially disadvantaged still need advocates for their health. I worked with the staff to create a program focused on the needs of the residents, which were things like balance, coordination and other regular skills that don't always get attention outside of physical therapy.

I was dealing with issues I didn't know much about, and I was very fortunate to have the mentorships of three Bastyr professors: June Kloubec, PhD, Tiffany Reiss, MS, PhD, and Lynelle Golden, PhD. They really guided me in figuring out what those patients needed, and what I could provide and what I couldn't. I can't say enough about how supportive they've been, even after I graduated. Especially Dr. Kloubec. They're fantastic — I'd recommend Bastyr to somebody just because of them.

How did you get from there to your current work?

I've done quite a bit of continuing education. I worked for an osteopathic physician before starting at Bastyr. I took an internship, and the job at the Bellettini, and after that I worked at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland in a sort of extern position to get more clinical experience. That all helped me get my current job.

For people looking to go into exercise science, I'd say "internship, internship, internship." You need to expose yourself to as many areas as possible and learn from people who have been working for 10 to 15 years.

What are the best and worst parts about working at a physical therapy center?

I definitely find it rewarding to work with a health-seeking population and people working on rehab. I'm especially interested in cardiopulmonary areas — heart and lung issues. There's so much we don't know about the physiology of the body, especially the heart. It's such a huge issue in our country. It's great that there's ample opportunity to get hands-on experience and contribute with this population. The need is only going to grow in the future.

The most challenging part of our work is compliance. People don't always like to exercise. We try to get them to understand it's not a quick fix. You can't work out for two weeks and expect your diabetes to go away or that you'll lose 50 pounds. Unfortunately, in our culture that's a common belief.

How do you address that?

Through results-driven programs. If patients see their blood pressure start to drop, that can be powerful motivation. That helps them make exercise part of their daily routine.

What is your work teaching you about yourself and what's important to you?

That work-life balance is important [laughs]. To be successful in a career path, you have to be passionate about what you're doing and constantly want to do more. For those who are considering the exercise science field, there are so many different areas to explore. I'm learning I'm successful when I'm able to follow my passion. But it's also hard sometimes to tear myself away from my work.


Learn more about studying exercise science at Bastyr.