Speech-Language Pathologist Used Furlough to Launch Wellness Startup
When Alison Weinlaeder was furloughed in March from her job as a speech-language pathologist at United Hospital’s Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, she sought a way to fill her time, distract her mind, and help people, like many of her former patients, who want to improve their cognitive functions.
So, in early April, she launched Cardiomelon, an online fitness subscription program that pairs cognitive tasks with physical exercises—like marching in place while spelling your last name backwards, or combining math and lunges. Led by personal trainers from around St. Paul, the platform’s 20- to 30-minute classes are designed specifically for those who want to fight the effects of aging on their minds and bodies.
“More and more research points to the vital aspect of cardiovascular fitness in reducing the risk of age-related brain changes and dementia,” Weinlaeder says. “Furthermore, some studies have found that if you combine brain and body exercises, you have the potential to improve the brain’s function more than by sitting and doing brain exercises alone.”
Even though Weinlaeder is now back to work at the hospital, she continues to work on Cardiomelon and says it’s a great distraction from all that’s going on in the world. “It gives me something positive to channel my thoughts and energy toward rather than worrying about things in the world I cannot control right now,” she says.
Cardiomelon is currently on track to meet its target of 100 subscribers in its first 90 days.
TCB: How has your work life changed or been disrupted by coronavirus?
Weinlaeder | Before coronavirus, I worked full time as an outpatient speech-language pathologist at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at United Hospital. When it became clear that the coronavirus could put our clinic’s patients (people with stroke, brain injury, cancer, degenerative disease, and other high-risk health conditions) at risk, the clinic closed. Initially I was placed in alternative support roles within the hospital and then eventually furloughed. Thankfully, the furlough was very short-lived as I was able to take on a role providing acute hospital care with the speech rehab team while the outpatient clinic remains closed. During my furlough, I used all my time and energy to finalize my website and launch Cardiomelon. I’m thankful to be working, but I may be furloughed on a short-term or long-term basis again in the future.
We have gotten some encouraging news about Medicare laws changing and private insurers adapting policies to allow speech therapists to provide and bill for their services through telemedicine. Before coronavirus, we would not have been able to treat patients remotely and bill for our services. With these billing changes, there is hope that I will be able to keep working in my role through a digital platform even if our outpatient clinic remains physically closed to the public.
Q. How did the idea for Cardiomelon come about?
A | I was trying to find a way to help older adults feel more in control of the aging process on their minds and bodies. I have had many patients sit in my office and ask me what app they should purchase or what website they should sign up for to get “brain exercise.” I found myself saying over and over again, if you aren’t doing something physical in addition to online or other brain activities, you are missing out on a vital part of what helps the brain stay healthy as you age: movement. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a fitness program that combines brain and body exercise?”
I wanted to create a service that was easy-to-use, very affordable, and time efficient so that there would be as few barriers as possible to helping adults over 50 access a workout that is stimulating for the mind and also very healthy for the body.
Q. Why did you decide to start Cardiomelon now given everything that’s going on?
A | I love helping others. I have so much empathy for older adults who may be afraid to go outside and exercise because of the fear of getting sick right now. Also, I hate the idea of people missing out on important brain-stimulating activities like card groups, book clubs, spiritual services, family gatherings, etc. that help our brains fight off age-related change and dementia as we age. I felt it was a vital time to reach out and offer a low-cost service to support brain and body health because social isolation and physical inactivity can be disastrous for our mental, cognitive, and physical health.
Q. How do you manage both your hospital job and Cardiomelon?
A | Since I went back to work, I’m finding it’s exhausting to work eight hours a day in a high-stress hospital environment and then come home, care for my family and put my kids (ages two and four) to bed, and then work from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. nightly on Cardiomelon. However, as much as it is so tiring, it gives me something positive to channel my thoughts and energy toward rather than worrying about things in the world I cannot control right now. I really love helping others, and my job has changed at the hospital so that I don’t have the same connection like I used to with my outpatients. It brings me a lot of joy when a Cardiomelon subscriber sends me a message saying the service is helping them in some way to feel stronger or healthier.
Q. Any bright spots in this crisis you can share?
A | I’ve learned about the amazing support there is in the Twin Cities for people who want to start a business. I have a mentor through the University of St. Thomas Small Business Development Center as well as a SCORE mentor who have been so helpful and encouraging. I feel very fortunate to live here and benefit from the knowledge of these experienced entrepreneurs.
Q. Do you have any advice for others who have been furloughed or lost jobs?
A | I found a lot of peace during my furlough by channeling my energy into something I feel passionate about, and I continue to find it helpful to avoid dwelling on fears about the future. I have also tried to make physical activity a must-do each day on furlough and when I’m at the hospital, even if it’s as short as 10-15 minutes, to take care of my mental and physical health during these uncertain times.
Q. Do you have any advice for staying motivated and productive at home?
A | The speech pathologist in me says, “Make a to-do list at the start of the day and check it off as you go.” It’s very satisfying to check off the tasks (even if they are as small as “drink coffee”), but it also helped keep me on track during the day. I also made myself get up and go for a walk in the middle of each day to give my brain and body a break. Even if I was feeling tired, it always made me feel better and helped me get my creative juices flowing again to finish up the afternoon.