Bailey Smith

2016 VAHS graduate Bailey Smith is studying physical therapy at UW-Madison.

A 2016 Verona Area High School graduate is realizing her dreams of working in healthcare.

It helps that Bailey Smith has won a national award for kinesiology and is studying through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s three-year physical therapy program. Smith said she was one of only 40 students accepted into it this year.

Smith was honored this spring with the 2020 American Kinesiology Association Undergraduate Award and was UW’s only nominee for the national academic award this year. She was also recognized for her work with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, where Smith has examined how people with higher fitness levels have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s.

Her research in the lab helped show a link between exercise and cognition changes, showing promise that physical activity is a modifiable risk factor for the disease.

Smith said as far as she knows, that link hasn’t been shown before. Her research demonstrates that lifestyle changes that get people active can affect memory and thinking. Other known risk factors include diet and education, but she focused on fitness level and physical activity.

She said she has wanted to work in healthcare since the middle of high school, when her human anatomy and biology classes at VAHS piqued her interest in the field.

And Smith studied kinesiology prior to entering the physical therapy program. She became involved with Adapted Fitness, a program within the department of kinesiology designed to train students how to respond to people with permanent as well as temporary disabilities by creating specialized exercise programs for them.

It was through her work with Adapted Fitness that Smith became interested in neurological rehab, working with diseases or injuries in the spinal cord or brain.

“With Adapted Fitness – a lot of people have multiple sclerosis or a spinal cord injury from a car accident, basically their issues can be a little more complex,” Smith said. “It has given me the opportunity to get creative with fitness programs – like when clients can’t grip a dumbbell, but we can adapt certain exercises to help people.”

The UW-Madison program specializes in helping people whose varying abilities create unusual challenges for physical therapists.

“In kinesiology, we learn a lot about exercises and ways to improve fitness and improve health,” Smith said. “Adapted Fitness gets more creative – not just prescribed programs – you think about the individual exercises so anyone can do them with any abilities.”

Smith said clients often will come in with an injury that doesn’t make senses based on what they’re describing, noting there aren’t rules or a framework for treating neurological conditions. Smith said numbness or the inability to contract a muscle, for example, is more complex than a torn ACL or a weak knee.

While right now, she’s interested in addressing neurological conditions such as genetic brain diseases and spinal injuries, Smith said, she is keeping her mind open as she continues with the program.

She started her first classes of the semester virtually in June and July. She hopes to be able to study on campus in the fall, but things are uncertain with COVID-19.

“Answering questions, facilitating fitness tests and MRIs – that has been extremely rewarding. I want to continue that individual impact you can make on someone and their families,” she said. “While I haven’t worked in field yet, knowing that is awaiting me is exciting and what I am inspired by.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at