Person performing on balance beam in blue and yellow leotard, next to a photo of the same person acting as a physical therapist and assisting a patient with arm strength exercises.

UC Davis Gymnastics alumna back on campus to support students

There’s an Ag for That

This article is part of an ongoing series about the impact UC Davis alumni are making in our world.

Returning to the hustle and bustle of daily routines after over a year of lockdowns is a challenge many people are now facing. For former UC Davis gymnast Madeline Kennedy ’14, it is a challenge she is helping current Aggies overcome as a physical therapist at Student Health and Counseling Services.

Four Tips for Improving Your Posture 

One of the most common things Kennedy addresses when working with students is posture. Here are four tips she gives to help optimize posture for students while they study.  

  1. Raise your phone to eye level rather than looking down - rings or sockets on the back of your phone can be very helpful with this and soften your grip while holding your phone. 
     
  2. Set a timer for mobility breaks – reminder yourself every 20- 30 minutes to move, this can be standing up or simply rolling your shoulders backward of few times, just move! 
     
  3. Vary your study work station – change your chair or stand when possible, our bodies respond better to changing position throughout the day. 
     
  4. Do a snow angel – find a flat surface, ie wall, yoga mat, or carpet, and wave your arms up and down against the surface as if making a snow angel. This will provide a gentle stretch to your arms and chest which often become tight when typing or writing. 

Kennedy provides support for students’ physical well-being, many of whom are facing the realities of everyday in-person life again—whether it’s returning to club or team sports, using the ARC or adjusting to moving around campus once more.

“The lockdowns created a huge shift from the physical activity that many students used to have ingrained in their day, whether it was moving around campus, or even commuting,” she explained. “I focus on creating a strategy to help them safely reintegrate those activities into their daily lives in ways that their body will respond well to.”

Kennedy joined the SHCS staff after earning her physical therapy doctorate from UCSF in 2019 and beginning the first years of her career in Philadelphia. One of her favorite parts of her new job is getting to be back on the UC Davis campus. 

“Our campus environment is a really motivating work environment, and it’s mostly because of the students who are so inspiring to me,” she said. “Aggies are so driven and hardworking, and helping them through this transition time has been really rewarding.”

Providing personalized care to each student

When meeting a patient, Kennedy first assesses what their goals are—whether it’s recovering from an injury or improving their overall physical health—and working with them to establish a health care plan to meet those goals and educate them on their body’s needs.

“My goal is to give them the power to learn what their body needs, how to best incorporate those needs into their busy lives, and make decisions for their overall health.”

Kennedy typically gives a student exercises they can do at home or in the gym, such as movements using dumbbells or resistance bands. She then checks in on their progress over a number of visits. Her job isn’t easy, but she says getting to work with students can make it feel that way.

 “What I love about working with students is they are really collaborative and curious,” she said. “They want to know about the process and always ask great questions. A big part of my job is patient education, and UC Davis students are so on top of it.”

A mental and physical balance

One lesson Kennedy has learned on the job is how closely physical and mental health are linked, especially for college students.

“There’s a lot of interactions between mental, emotional and physical health,” she explained. “Students’ physical health plays a huge role in their ability to succeed in their studies or work here.”

Kennedy remembers from her own experience how stressful and busy the life of a college student is, and how sleep and self-care often get pushed down the list of priorities.

“I have so much respect for students dealing with busy schedules and the current demands on their bodies and their minds,” she said.

But whether someone is just getting started on their physical health journey or working through the process, it’s never too late to take more control over their own care.

 “I especially want students to be able to come to us early in any sort of dysfunction pattern that's been developing so we can stop it sooner and limit any impairment that it has on their overall life and wellness.”

Above all, Kennedy strives to be a source of support for students as they work through their physical therapy.

“I look at it as a therapeutic alliance, like we're a team when trying to help a patient reach their goals,” she said.

Inspired by support and passing it on 

Kennedy is no stranger to challenges—as a former student-athlete of the Women’s Gymnastics team, she’s learned firsthand the importance of having a support system.

 “Gymnastics had a huge mental component to it. It’s very intense mentally along with the physical challenges of it,” she explained. “But I was always surrounded by my supportive family and my peers in the Athletics program.”

“I also have to give kudos to my coach John Lavallee because although we were student-athletes, he always prioritized us as people first, then students, then athletes,” she said.

Kennedy’s passion for sports led her to major in exercise biology and the combination of her training and classes, including treatment she received for injuries or labs she participated in, showed her how a career as a physical therapist could help her make an impact on other people’s lives.

Having a great support system during her own time as a student is what inspires Kennedy to do the same for the students she treats now.

“I’m so inspired by the people who helped me during my time as a student,” she said. “I now want to be the support system for current students as they navigate this really challenging time.”