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Off the Clock
For Farrah Daly, MD, Teaching Exercise and Providing Palliative Care Have a Common Thread

ARTICLE IN BRIEF

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DR. FARRAH DALY: “The thing that I would want somebody coming out of neurology training to know, or even someone starting residency, is that its so important to find an outlet that you enjoy so much that you make time for it.”

Farrah Daly, MD, is a neurologist who specializes in palliative care. But outside of the job, she teaches group exercise classes. She says she meets a common need in both settings.

When neurologist Farrah Daly, MD, meets new patients, they occasionally ask her, “Are you the dancing, kickboxing doctor?” For good reason. In her professional life, Dr. Daly serves as medical director for Goodwin House Hospice and Palliative Medicine, a small, non-profit hospice in Falls Church, VA. But about ten years ago, she discovered a passion for teaching exercise, and now in her free time you can usually find her in her favorite gym. The type of coaching she does with patients is not all that different than the help she provides to people in her exercise class — both sets of people need help in articulating and achieving their goals, she told Neurology Today.

Here in excerpted remarks she discusses how she has combined her “off the clock” passion — teaching group exercise classes — with her work as a neurologist.

WERE YOU ALWAYS INTERESTED IN EXERCISE?

I never would have called myself athletic growing up, or even in my young adulthood. I was active and liked to be outdoors, and I had taken dance lessons as a child, ridden horses, and liked to go hiking, but I was never someone who exercised just for the sake of exercising.

Then I did all my medical training [at Drexel University College of Medicine], finished my residency [at the University of Virginia], and moved to a new area where I didn't know anyone to pursue my fellowship in palliative medicine. I took a look around and realized that all my hobbies had fallen away, and I was not a healthy or a happy person. It hit me all of a sudden that I was maybe 15 pounds heavier than when I'd started medical school. I'd get out of the car going to work and my legs were stiff. I begrudgingly joined a gym and was slugging away on the treadmill, when I saw a dance class going on in the gym's studio nearby. People looked like they were having so much fun! I went the next week and never missed a class for three years. I was hooked!

WHAT KIND OF CLASS WAS IT?

It was called Les Mills BODYJAM. It's an international program developed in New Zealand. A lot of gyms have the Les Mills brand of weight lifting, called BODYPUMP, and they also have other classes in different genres, like aerobics, dance, or kickboxing. The Les Mills organization does a lot of research to develop moves that are safe and effective. It has a standardized training program for instructors.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO START TO TEACH?

I first started with teaching Zumba, which a lot of people are familiar with. It's a Latin-based dance class and it's fairly easy to get certified as a teacher. I like to say that it was my gateway certification to teach — and then I went for these harder ones, which I began doing in 2008.

HOW DID YOU TRAIN TO BECOME AN INSTRUCTOR?

First, you have to put in prep time beforehand learning all the different moves they use in the classes. Then you spend two to three days in a training program, after which you team up and teach alongside another instructor. They give you feedback, and when they think you're at a high enough level, you can make a video of yourself teaching, which will be assessed by national trainers who approve you to teach on your own.

TELL US MORE ABOUT THE CLASSES.

The classes include lots of different styles, but the dance is mostly house and hip-hop, club style dance. Participants typically don't have any dance experience or training. From warmups through the subsequent hour, I gradually coach them through moves and build different combinations on each other, so that by the end of the hour they are doing a whole routine repeatedly with the music. And over the course of the hour, the music never stops. You take the class participants on a journey from being a little bit nervous and uncertain when they walk in, to doing the whole dance routine together by the end of the hour. They never have time to think about how out of their comfort zone they are. I like to say it's the fastest hour-long class in the gym! To teach these classes, you have to be able to show different levels of every movement so that there's always something that's accessible to somebody new, and always a way for someone experienced to challenge themselves.

WHY DOES IT APPEAL TO YOU SO MUCH?

Being in there for the hour is like a total mind-body meditation. I'm being physically active, working hard with my body in motion, challenging itself, while also watching class participants, assessing their needs, and coaching them to get what they want out of the class. At the same time, I'm also keeping my brain working with the choreography, making sure we're in the right place with the music. I'm using all facets of my mind and body. Whatever happened at work that day, whatever was difficult, completely gets set aside.

HOW DO YOU FIT IT IN WITH YOUR SCHEDULE?

I work part-time — that's a big way to do it! The most I've taught is five classes a week, and the least is one per week. Right now I'm getting ready to take my board recertification, so I have it down to two classes a week. I have my job, I have two kids who are 6 and 3, and I have my time at the gym and the time I put into preparing for being at the gym. It's fun, and it's a social connection and a complete escape from anything else that might be going on.

DO YOU FIND YOURSELF APPLYING THE SKILLS TEACHING THESE CLASSESS IN YOUR WORK AS A NEUROLOGIST?

Yes, there are different facets that I pull out of this that I think enhance my work as a neurologist. One I think is really powerful is the concentrated intention that I put into learning how to be an effective coach. When I'm doing my work seeing patients, I'm utilizing my knowledge of physical exam skills, but more than anything else I'm coaching them through a difficult time in their life. For coaching at the gym, I get specific instruction and training on how to engage people with different personality types — what motivates one person versus another to help them achieve their goal. I was surprised to find that that directly translates into working with patients.

WHAT IN PARTICULAR TRANSLATES INTO YOUR WORK IN PALLIATIVE CARE?

As a palliative care specialist, I'm seeing people at their weakest point in life and asking questions: “What are your goals? What do we need to achieve in the time that we have?” I'm then coaching them in their symptom management, energy conservation, and focus to achieve those goals. It's a similar conversation in the gym except that my class participants are healthy and active; with them I'm asking: “What do you want to get out of this hour, what are your long range goals, and how can we get there together?’”

Also, some continuing education I receive as a group exercise instructor is focused on functional anatomy in a way that was glossed over in my medical training. It actually has filled in some gaps in terms of anatomy and physiology that were not strongly emphasized in my medical education. I was surprised about that!

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNGER NEUROLOGISTS?

The thing that I would want somebody coming out of neurology training to know, or even someone starting residency, is that it's so important to find an outlet that you enjoy so much that you make time for it. Because of the nature of medical work and the other competing demands for your time, you have to find something that is so much fun that you just can't miss it. When you have something like that, it's so worthwhile that it brings that happiness and joy into your work life also. In this time of so much burnout, I hear a lot of talk about how do you care for yourself. For me, it's about finding something you love enough to make time for it when there is “no time.”

“Off the Clock” is a new series featuring neurologists and neuroscientists who pursue a rich array of hobbies, interests, and passions outside of their work. Want to nominate someone for a feature? Send your suggestions (and why they are good candidates) to NeurologyToday@WoltersKluwer.com.

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