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The Healing Power of Movement

by Julie Dial, MA, CES

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A wise seven-year cancer survivor defined coping this way: Find the Courage to Overcome obstacles, Position yourself for the future through Introspection, Negate looking back, and Get moving. Does the “get moving” part of coping sound challenging?

Clinical experience has shown that moderate physical activity is beneficial to cancer survivors. Increasing energy and conserving lean mass during treatment through specifically designed exercises are benefits of movement. Physiological gains include promoting positive changes in the cardiovascular, neuromuscular, respiratory, metabolic, immune, and endocrine systems, which has an impact on the cancer experience. Structured physical activity may help a cancer survivor perform the activities of daily living with less effort, cope with fatigue, increase aerobic capacity, counter the effects of inactivity, and fight depression while feeling more in control of his or her body. Part of the challenge of getting moving is deciding what exercise fits your lifestyle, where to perform the activity, and what will motivate you to move.

Get Moving
Before beginning an exercise program, you should get clearance from your healthcare provider, along with a set of precautions, guidelines, and follow-up documentation. Proactive comprehensive healthcare teams should include a cancer exercise specialist to assure safety and effectiveness when providing prescriptive exercise. No specific, scientifically-proven cancer exercise guidelines have been documented; however, studies conclude that exercise is safe, feasible, and beneficial to cancer survivors’ quality of life in any stage of treatment.

Try to incorporate light exercise into your normal routine by creating movement opportunities throughout the day.

Author of Article photo

Julie Dial

When beginning an exercise program, always proceed in a slow, progressive manner. People with cancer should consider intermittent or interval exercise – alternating short segments of exercise with periods of rest – until they accumulate the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity, five to seven days a week. Include program components that encompass deep breathing, flexibility, balance, strength training, and aerobic activities.

Light exercise can give a person a proactive mindset during cancer treatment, as well as a sense of regaining control and becoming an active participant in recovery. Try to incorporate light exercise into your normal routine by creating movement opportunities throughout the day using ordinary activities. Pick up the paper, walk to the mailbox to retrieve the mail, practice standing up and sitting down in a chair to test your balance and strength. Try to balance on one foot using a chair for assistance. Climb the stairs; start with one step at a time, and add more steps as you feel comfortable.

“Beginning an exercise program is often overwhelming for cancer patients, and I encourage them to start very slowly and with modest goals, such as five minutes of walking, five times per week,” notes Dr. Michael D. Stubblefield of the Rehabilitation Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. “If cancer survivors dread doing the exercise, they are generally doing too much, and we should consider revising the program.”

Set Goals
Creating short-term and long-term measurable goals is imperative for success. A measurable goal includes concrete criteria for measuring progress, for example, walking three times a week for 30 minutes. Go ahead and reward yourself once the goal is achieved.

Use these questions to help you set your exercise goals:

  • What is the activity?
  • When will I do this activity?
  • Where will I perform the activity?
  • How often and how will I incorporate others into this exercise activity?
  • Why is this important to me?

While setting activity goals, I invite you to participate in fundraising benefits supporting cancer initiatives through any form of recreational movement, such as walks or fun runs. It is important to vary your surroundings so you don’t become bored with your routine. Be realistic about fatigue, limitations, and injury risk; however, you should try to incorporate outdoor activities if possible. Spending time outdoors can have positive effects on your physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Although you may have both high-energy and low-energy days, keep in mind that doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing at all. Empower yourself to move through this journey, and celebrate every milestone. Pass fellow survivors with a smile saying, “Walk forward with me; we are conquering cancer one step at a time.”

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Julie Dial is a clinical applied exercise physiologist and certified cancer exercise specialist. She holds a faculty appointment as a clinical instructor in the School of Health Professions at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.