Helping Clients Find Their Inner Superhero

Rehab practitioner combining her OT, fitness and Pilates training to help clients.

14 August 2012

Seven-year-old Quinn's drawing of Superman is a fitting description of his mom's work. Sandra Stessun, BScOT, does more than help her clients regain body function and movement after surgery and/or injury. According to her clients, she's helping them discover their inner superheroes.

This is not an advertisement for Sandra's practice. She has more than enough clients to fill her busy schedule. In fact, Sandra wants to share her secret to success so more rehab practitioners, particularly recent grads, can make the educational connections they need to provide services similar to hers.

Sandra knows that as the population ages, and as the obesity epidemic grows, the call for her kind of practice is going to increase. The more rehab practitioners who adopt similar practices, the more Albertans will be able to discover their own inner telephone booths and capes.

Sandra's secret to success is simple.

She has complemented her Occupational Therapy (OT) degree from the University of Alberta with training in Pilates and fitness.

"My OT practice uses core-based movements inspired by Pilates as my therapeutic modality to help improve clients' movement and function," explains Sandra.

"I teach proper body alignment and posture, and how to recruit the core muscles to stabilize the spine. This increased core stability and strength allows my clients to move more efficiently and safely which, in turn, improves their ability to function throughout the day. They become more aware of their body mechanics, whether they're doing housework or driving, doing sports or working," she says.

"It's all about programming the muscles to fire effectively from the inside out - teaching the deep muscles to fire first. This provides stabilization. Then the outer (moving) muscles fire to produce movement. Establishing this sequence of 'stability first, movement second' doesn't just reduce injury. It also produces better movement."

Sandra credits her studies in three separate programs over the years as the foundation for her current success.

"My OT training taught me anatomy, physiology, exercise science, activity analysis skills and neuroanatomy - the sound rehab medicine foundation for everything I do. My fitness training taught me about exercise, how to motivate clients and movement. And my Pilates training further explored the connection between posture, alignment and exercise, as well as how to help clients connect the mind with the body," she explains.

"One of the key elements is the Pilates equipment. It allows me to train my clients in safe, supported positions, whether it's sitting or lying down, which means they get the benefit of the training without the full impact of gravity."

And it's working. Thanks to word-of-mouth referrals from her very satisfied clients, Sandra has more inquiries from potential new clients than she can handle.

"I would love it if more rehab professionals could see the potential in fusing rehab with Pilates…or yoga or fitness for that matter. There are so many cross-training opportunities that could help promote health and wellness, and prevent illness and injury. As rehab practitioners, there are great opportunities for us to bridge the gap between the medical and fitness worlds," she says.

In a perfect world, Sandra says we would see more rehab professionals in the fitness business.

"I don't think many OTs out there recognize how broad our scope of practice is and how important health, fitness and preventative care are. I believe we can expand our role to include more than traditional settings," she says.

Sandra is keen to share what she has learned with fellow rehab medicine practitioners and welcomes inquiries at

In the meantime, keep a watchful eye out for capes launching from telephone booths. You just may catch a glimpse of one of Sandra's clients.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.