Fighting, Faith and Asynchronous Cardiac Rehab: Get to Know Alexis Bhagat, ACSM-CEP

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Fighting, Faith and Asynchronous Cardiac Rehab: Get to Know Alexis Bhagat, ACSM-CEP

Joe Sherlock, ACSM Copywriter |  May 21, 2024

Alexis Bhagat fought her way into sports medicine.

The 32-year-old clinical exercise physiologist is a true Millennial: like many of us, she went to the mat, so to speak, on an extracurricular activity. Specifically karate, which blossomed into an impressive athletic career. And it was no surprise: Both of her older brothers were also fiercely competitive karate athletes, the elder of whom owns his own dojo in Chicago, where Bhagat (née Ocampo) originally hails from.

But Bhagat is a long way from Chicago now. Based in Denver, she provides telehealth cardiac rehabilitation services for Kaiser Permanente’s Colorado system. Consequently, our mid-March Zoom interview has echoes of the scene in The Shining when Chef Halloran gets the phone call to go check on the Torrances: where I’m sitting, the temperature is hovering between the high 50s and low 60s, but when I ask her about the weather in her neck of the woods, she says, “We’re getting plowed with a ton of snow here in Denver. Thankfully, I work from home, so I don’t have to try to trek through it all.”

Without harping too much on these strange sorts of environmental disjuncts, or the “revolutionary nature” or “newness” of remote work — telephones, faxes and email kept the world in much closer contact while physically apart than we seem to remember — the opportunity to offer telehealth care to patients and clients has been a distinct and important shift for physicians and certified exercise professionals alike. It’s not so much the newness of the technology but the newness of its widespread acceptance.

For her part, Bhagat is able to provide quality care to an extraordinary number of patients via the remote platform Kaiser has set up for her and her nurse practitioner colleague.

But back to karate for the moment. How’d that happen?

Bhagat: “I have two older brothers, and they were doing it at that time. And I sat in a karate class, and I just looked at my dad, and I was like, ‘Hey, I wanna do this too.’ And so he signed me up for karate class. Immediately it just became a family thing.”

By the time she was six years old, Bhagat was putting in two-a-day training sessions. At 11 or 12, she was competing internationally with the U.S. team, primarily via AAU Karate. (Its philosophy of “Sports For All, Forever” dovetails nicely with ACSM’s mission to “extend and enrich lives through the power of movement.”)

Bhagat trained with coaches all over the globe, competed in world championships, learned how to attack an exercise program with tenacity and gusto — learned, too, how to deal with and recover from injuries. It was an education about getting in touch with her own body in the way only a high-level athlete can.

Here’s her resume and trophy room, translated into text:

  • 3x Ozawa Cup International Champion
  • 3x Most Outstanding Female Competitor of the Year
  • 3x US Open Champion
  • 10x NKF National Champion
  • 16x AAU National Champion
  • 2x Hawaii International Champion
  • 2x JKA Champion
  • 1x Jr. Pan American Games Champion
  • 2x WKC Jr World Champion
  • 1x WKC Sr World Champion
  • WUKF European Champion
  • WUKF World Champion
  • Former AAU-USA Assistant Coach

Karate was the reason she pursued a pre-physical therapy degree at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, before moving on to a master’s in clinical exercise physiology from the same school in the fall of 2016. It drove almost everything in her life.

Then came the COVD-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 disjunct, as much we all desperately want to get past it, shows up as a crucial turning point in the lives of many I interview for ACSM. For Bhagat, the pause in her training and competition schedule hit just as she was beginning to feel like karate was something her “old self” had done. It seems the pause allowed her to take stock of who she’d become while she wasn’t looking. Her last competition was the 2019 European championships in Romania.

“When the pandemic hit, that kind of took a toll,” she says. “And that’s when my priorities shifted. I got older. And of course, I really wanted to focus on my career and start a family.”

At the time of our interview, Bhagat is 17 weeks pregnant.

* * *

By the time COVID-19 reared its head, Bhagat was immersed not only in karate but in a career as an exercise physiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

But she felt she was stagnating. She and her husband, Kevin, a UX designer, were itching for a fresh start somewhere outside the Windy City. The couple decided they wanted to move West.

Initially, the goal was California, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, Colorado beckoned. And though she had plenty of work experience and a master’s degree, most of the jobs Bhagat applied to required a certification as well, which she hadn’t yet earned. Fortunately, she found her current role at Kaiser Permanente, and Kaiser provided a six-month grace period in which she could work to get certified. She chose ACSM.

“When I got hired in April (2021), I studied immediately,” she says. “I studied really hard for three months, like even during work and after work. And then I took the test in July and passed on the first try, thank God, because I’m not a good test-taker.”

Two years later, ACSM held its 2023 annual meeting in Denver. She took the opportunity to attend, finding herself particularly interested in sessions about cardiac arrest.

An interesting anecdote bubbles up.

“Actually, my oldest brother cardiac arrested while fighting in the dojo,” Bhagat recalls. “He got kicked really hard in the ribs and arrested in front of me — I was only 10 or 11 — and someone did CPR. They said that if she’d stopped, he would have died.”

We chat about impact-related cardiac arrest (aka commotio cordis) and the sports in which it seems most likely to occur — football, baseball, etc. Then the connection:

“It’s crazy that my experience of that when I was little is now my field.”

It’s always possible to assign too much or too little significance to the events in our lives, but the striking moment Bhagat describes, in which her brother is roundhouse kicked in the chest, then walks to the side of the dojo before simply and suddenly collapsing, his life left entirely in the hands of a CPR-capable bystander, begs our attention.

Here we must remember that we’re viewing the scene through the eyes of a little girl who may or may not know that her brother is on a knife edge, for whom the concept of death might not yet be concrete but who feels the enormity and strangeness of life events far more than we as adults allow ourselves to. The poetic logic that Bhagat was destined to work in cardiac rehab seems inescapable.

Now, Bhagat is one of three clinical exercise physiologists in the Kaiser system. She provides remote supervision to cardiac rehabilitation patients who perform prescribed exercise while wearing Fitbits to track their vital signs.

In fact, Bhagat and her chief co-worker, a nurse, had no small part in building the remote program they now run. It’s asynchronous, meaning that Bhagat doesn’t lead exercise classes per se but rather works on exercise prescriptions for patients and monitors their vital signs from afar.

There are guardrails, of course.

“These patients are exercising independently,” she says. “So we have stricter criteria. A patient should be able to walk a hundred feet unassisted.”

Naturally, Bhagat’s role is to make sure they aren’t getting into dangerous territory during their routines, and she also meets with them for 30 minutes each week to see if they’re experiencing any concerning symptoms. And if someone shows a dangerously abnormal vital sign, she’ll receive an alert in real time. She provides care to roughly 100 patients at any on juncture; each month, about 28 enroll as others cycle out.

Crucially, Bhagat worked with her supervisors to ensure her CPT coding was at the same level as her nurse colleague’s, since she was providing the same level of care. (Promoting proper coding for certified professionals is an ACSM priority.)

* * *

What many ACSM members and cert pros might know Bhagat for, though, is her social media presence.

“It all started during pandemic,” she says. “I started posting exercise physiology study guides. I was gearing towards students needing help because I was at that stage. Like, I needed help.”

Having always been compelled to take meticulous notes — and to organize them in a visually appealing manner — Bhagat was unintentionally preparing herself to help other up-and-coming physiologists in their studies. During the pandemic, she saw nurses posting to TikTok but noticed that there was a dearth of clinical exercise physiology content. She decided to fill the niche.

At first, it was just for fun. But the momentum grew. Eventually, she added day-in-the-life content, providing needed visibility to the field of clinical exercise physiology — especially important for students wondering what they might be able to do with such a degree.

Her reach grew, as well as her impact.

“I’ve had, I would say, almost 15 or 20 interviews already from 2020 till now, just with different students,” she says. “I would have people messaging me like, ‘Hey, I’m in the field. Can I do an interview with you from my school, just so I can learn more from someone who’s actually in the field?’ and I’m like, yes, please let’s do it.”

Later, she says: “Our role is so diverse, but it’s also very specific as well. And so I wanted to shed light on that.”

You can check out her posts (@alexisobhagat) on Instagram and TikTok.

* * *

I ask what she does in her spare time.

“I love hiking,” she says. “That’s always fun. I haven’t tried it yet since getting pregnant, so I’ll have to try that, but hiking for sure.” She continues: “I love hanging out with my friends. I’m very faith based as well. So I’ve been with my small groups here in my church just hanging out with them and getting to know them.”

This leads to a discussion about the role of faith in her life and work. She outlines how athletes often harbor a powerful desire for control — diet, training, and overall routine being a mere handful of examples. She and her husband really wanted to end up in California, for one thing, but it just didn’t happen. The pandemic tested their faith as well. Yet, the solution was to loosen rather than tighten their grip.

“I had to surrender all of my control and just let God take the reins. And it actually led me to Colorado — still a really nice place. Friendly people and a job I love doing, although I am away form family. It just opened up so many doors for me, and I feel like I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t surrender control of what, you know, I think should be done.”

What about the future?

“In my role right now, I love what I do. I love my co-worker; she’s awesome too. And then just working with Kaiser, it’s just been awesome. So I’m not sure right now, but I definitely want to stay in this virtual realm of exercise physiology.”

Like many of us, the name of the game right now is to soldier on. Comfortably situated in a rewarding role, and with a growing family to look forward to, Bhagat continues to share her story with up-and-coming physiologists on her social media platforms.

So, when the next big change does occur, we’re sure to hear about it.