Activating their abilities
Unlike many exercise science graduates who dream of working with elite athletes at the top of their game, Kara Foscholo wants to help everyday people with disability get active and improve their lives.
A Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science was a natural fit for Kara, right from the start.
“In high school I always enjoyed health and physical education and biology, and I played a lot of sport too, everything from touch footy to water polo,” she said.
When she came to ACU’s Strathfield Campus, Kara wasn’t fully sure which direction she wanted to go in until a guest lecturer spoke to her class about career options for exercise scientists.
“Somehow she lit a fire under me. When she was talking about exercise physiology careers, something clicked. I soon realised I’d need to do a master’s degree and I’d have to work a bit harder to give my marks a lift to get into the course. But setting that goal really helped me focus on what I wanted to achieve.”
After she completed her master’s, Kara worked as a research assistant for a project at the university where she had studied, focusing on different types of exercise for people with an intellectual disability.
As well as that research project, Kara was also working part-time with a different type of client group.
“The clinic I was working at provided exercise services and interventions for people with neurological conditions. Most of my clients had MS or they’d had a stroke or an acquired brain injury.”
The right moves
While Kara had originally been toying with the idea of moving into cardiac rehab, she now knew for certain which path she wanted to follow.
“I realised I didn’t want to work with athletes in sport performance or in cardiac rehab. Instead, I wanted to help people with a disability to improve their day-to-day lives, either helping them with their functional independence or quality of life.
“The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) being rolled out in about 2014 made a big difference to everyone. Before then, I had studied chronic disease at uni, but disability was only a small component. But with the NDIS came an increased focus and emphasis on disability that has progressed quite considerably.
“And I just loved the work that I had done as part of the research project. It was exciting, fun and so rewarding. Every day was different.
"All of my clients had an intellectual disability, but that’s such a broad term and doesn’t take into account their individuality and personalities. That research project is absolutely why I still work with people with disabilities today.”
Working with her clients, Kara quickly learnt that to help them incorporate exercise into their daily routines, she needed to meet them where they were at.
“A few of my clients, for example, loved watching The Bold and the Beautiful, which at the time was on TV five days a week at 4pm. So, I got them to get up during every ad break to do a different activity, like sit-to-stands for one block of ads, then maybe a dumbbell shoulder press during the next ad break. It was never about supporting them to not watch TV so they could exercise. It was just redirecting them to more activity during the schedule that they already had.”
After growing her experience, Kara decided to break out on her own and alongside business partner Amanda Semaan, together they created their own exercise physiology business to support people with disabilities.
“We saw an opportunity in the market as there wasn’t anything out there like what we have now with our business, Active Ability. Even before the NDIS started rolling out, we didn’t really know its potential.
“Now we work with all kinds of people across the lifespan, specialising in teens to adults with MS, stroke, acquired brain injuries, dementia, intellectual disabilities and people with complex mental health issues.
“We’ve also moved beyond exercise physiology too, and we’ve become an allied health service, with dietitians and physios on staff as well.”
Access for everyone
After starting her business, Kara quickly recognised the accessibility issues her clients were facing, and she knew Active Ability needed to go mobile.
“We’re really passionate about providing a mobile service to remove the barriers related to transportation, as well as things like fatigue, which are both overwhelming issues for many of the people we work with.
“For some of them, just the idea of trying to get to an exercise clinic is fatiguing, not to mention having to do the actual exercise program once they arrive.
“And for those with a cognitive impairment in particular, replicating an intervention, whether it’s exercise or dietary based, is less overwhelming when they’re in their same, familiar environment.
“Now, we have a mobile service all across Sydney, Wollongong and the Sunshine Coast.”
Balancing it all
Kara said running a business like Active Ability is enjoyable, “depending on what day it is!”, but admits her approach to work has shifted with time.
“When I started the business, I’d say I was a clinician first and a business owner second. But as we’ve grown – we now have about 70 people on staff – that’s switched, and I don’t offer direct services to our clients anymore. Instead, I’m busy managing my team. But I miss working with clients every day.
“It’s definitely a challenge juggling my work and home life with a four-year-old and 18-month old. I’m always distracted or tempted to work when I want to be engaging with my kids and it can feel like my brain never fully switches off. But I think my best advice to other parents is to set parameters and give yourself some boundaries to make it work for you.”
Discover the possibilities of an exercise science degree at ACU.