Personal trainer helps injured clients through personal experience.
By Melanie Wong
Looking at personal trainer Kirsten Stuart, you’d never guess the energetic, athletic-looking blonde has undergone 14 reconstructive surgeries, including five back operations.
You’d also never guess that Stuart, positive and always ready with a smile, has learned the hard way what it means for an athlete to lose the ability to exercise. The Aspen native grew up playing sports, skiing and played college volleyball for the University of Wyoming. Later, she became a certified personal trainer and made her living helping others reach their fitness goals.
Various injuries sidelined Stuart through the years, but the biggest blow came with a series of back injuries that led to five back surgeries and the possibility of more in the future. The injuries plunged Stuart into a cycle of depression and unhealthy coping. However, she survived to share her story, and now uses her past experiences to help clients struggling with injuries or other physical limitations as a trainer at Edward’s Dogma Athletica.
Her experience spotlights a very real aspect of injuries in an area where regular exercise and activity is a way of life – your surgeon can fix you up and your physical therapist can help you regain strength, but what about the mental toll?
“It’s shown that after your body is in pain for two weeks, there are chemical changes in your brain – you end up feeling depressed,” says Stuart. “We all have our outlets and coping mechanisms, and mine was exercise.”
The mental toll of injuries
That love of sports began at a young age, and after she moved to the Vail Valley, she began teaching fitness classes. Today, she has more than 20 years experience teaching fitness and 12 years under her belt as a personal trainer.
When in her 20s, Stuart set into a breakneck schedule of teaching aerobics at the Avon Rec Center, skiing and biking. She ended up tearing a calf muscle, an injury that led to a herniated disc in her back. She had her first surgery in 1997, which according to Stuart, fixed the immediate problem, but not the causes. Eight years later, she herniated another disc and had her second back surgery.
“At physical therapy, they said, ‘You’re a trainer, you know what to do (to fully recover),’ but I really didn’t,” admits Stuart. “So I just did some core stuff and lower back exercises.”
Less than a year later, she was right back in the hospital with the same injury and same surgery. She remembers waking up from surgery and feeling like something was terribly wrong.
“I was in such pain, and my legs were on fire,” she says.
The surgery brought many complications – there wasn’t enough space between the discs, and the pain was both consuming and debilitating. Now in her 30s, she was looking at an operation to get her back fused.
Later, doctors would find her bone wasn’t growing back correctly, a complication that would eventually lead to two more surgeries. After the spinal fusion, Stuart began taking a medication that affected her memory and speech. The following months were a struggle, as she had lost not only her ability to be active and lost 30 pounds, but began losing her friends as well. Feeling without support, and unable to drive or work, she plunged into depression and began turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“(At one point), I hadn’t smiled, laughed or not been in pain for weeks,” she says.
Stuart remembers those as some of the darkest months of her life, but eventually she decided she wanted to return to being an athlete.
Some days, the best she could do was stand in her physical therapist’s office, near tears at the difficulty of the exercises. Other days were better, but with the support of friends and a good dose of humor, she began the long road to physical and mental recovery.
That recovery began four years ago, and today, while Stuart still experiences daily pain from her back injuries and the complications, she’s back to training.
“In training you have to be able to relate to a client in order to work with them. You have to understand both their physical and emotional needs. That’s a huge component, and I think that’s where I’m different. I help clients look for long-term improvement as opposed to a quick fix,” she says.
Her clients have included those coming back from blown-out knees, back operations and even someone who had childhood polio.
Minturn resident Sarah Dorman began working with Stuart after tearing her ACL at the beginning of the 2010-2011 ski season. Stuart showed her how to exercise the rest of her body, helped her structure a good diet and encouraged her on powder days, when Dorman was stuck indoors.
“She knew how much I was hurting, with all my friends having this great ski year. She saw the emotional and mental struggles coming before I did,” says Dorman. She understood what not being able to exercise does to you, mentally, how depressing it is.”
For Stuart, she’s just glad her negative experience can help others.
“People here just push themselves very hard, and you need to listen to your body when you have an injury,” Stuart says. We all have injuries – whether it’s major or something that’s not quite balanced in” our bodies. Take an injury as a time to learn about your body and come back stronger than you were before.”