By Holly Perkins
As a personal trainer for the past 14 years I've had the opportunity to work with several women as they battle breast cancer. While every woman has a different and very personal experience with the disease, I have found there's some fitness advice that helps in every case.
1. Do Not Fear Your Body
This is No. 1 because it is a rule and principle that will influence your relationship with your body for life. Very often, when a woman has to deal with something attacking her body, and causing it to act in new, strange, and scary ways, she begins to think this body is not one she knows anymore -- and this leads to fear. Therefore, it's natural to want to avoid doing anything physical because you think it might cause even more harm. Be brave. Remember that the human body is resilient: Yours is repairing and rebuilding every moment and is instinctually driven toward healing.
2. Rest and Recovery Can Include Physical Activity
I'm very careful with the words I use: With women undergoing treatment, I use the words "physical activity" instead of "exercise" or "workout." Why? Because this is a time for assisting your body's healing process and physical activity has been proven by studies to promote immune system function when done at the appropriate intensity. It doesn't mean that this is the time for attempting your fastest 10K; you'll reap many benefits from light to moderate physical activity (check out a few suggestions below).
Light to moderate activity is defined as exercising at 50 to 65 percent of your maximum ability. This might be hard to estimate, so I have my clients use a one-to-10 scale where one represents sitting comfortably and 10 represents your hardest physical effort. At any time during an activity, take a quick assessment of the total experience of the activity and rate your perceived exertion on that scale; you should aim for a five or six. In my experience, the most exciting benefits from physical activity are improved body image, increased belief in the ability to conquer the disease, physical resilience, faster recovery, and improved appetite and digestion.
This is an important one: Find an activity that you love, one that brings you real pleasure. This is the perfect time to learn a new activity such as dancing, swimming, walking, yoga, or tai chi. All of these activities keep your body moving and inspire the important metabolic and temperature shifts that keep the body circulating and managing interstitial fluids (the circulating solution that supports all body tissues and muscles). This is important because interstitial fluid can collect in the lymph glands and cause lymphedema, a common condition in which the lymph glands get congested. You'll lower your risk for lymphedema if you stay active; the lymph system needs assistance in its flushing mechanism, and physical activity is an ideal tool for doing that.
Find an activity that encourages large, full-body movements and that increases the heart rate and body temperature. A little bit of sweat is beneficial too! This will help the body to flush the lymph system, keeping it running smoothly.
4. Make Your Body Strong
Although strength training may not be first on your beloved activity list, it will ease the challenges of cancer. Strength training encourages feelings of physical power, well-being, and resilience more than other activities. It breeds what I like to call "the Leonidas syndrome," after the Spartan leader who was certain he could conquer any army despite the humble size of his own army. Women tend to feel they can beat anything when they are physically strong. Strength training, even more than cardiovascular activity, will also make it easier to lose or maintain weight.
I find that every woman responds a little differently to cancer treatment; some gain weight, while others lose. In either case, improving your muscles' metabolism brings about many benefits, such as stimulating overall metabolism, increasing stamina, and balancing hormones. At rest, strong muscles remain highly active, still burning a few calories.
If you develop toned and active muscles, you will burn more calories all the time, making it easier to lose weight if you need to. If you are a woman over 30, strength training must be part of your physical activity in order to avoid the muscle loss that occurs with age. I have seen amazing changes in women that commit to a twice-weekly full-body strength training program.
5. Stretch to Your Limits
If you are not yet feeling energetic enough to go for a walk or pick up a dumbbell, you can still make progress simply by stretching. Have a seat on the floor and pick any stretch you're familiar with -- it doesn't matter which one it is. To get started, simply sit upright on the floor and open your legs into a V in front of you. Place your hands on the floor in front of you near your upper thighs and gently begin to lean forward. You might feel a stretch in your inner thighs; in this same stretch I would feel it in my hips and one client of mine would only feel this in her hamstrings -- but all of these are correct! In short, you'll feel the stretch where your body needs it most.
So have a seat, pick any stretch that you can think of, and gently ease into it. Stretches are intended to lengthen muscles, release tension, and open joints. Therefore, stretching should feel pleasant, gentle, warming, and beneficial. There is also a slight contraction that occurs when stretching any muscle, which means you'll develop a small but noticeable amount of muscle tone simply from stretching
Holly Perkins has a B.S. in exercise physiology and nutrition from Penn State University. For 14 years she has trained athletes and celebrities in all aspects of health and fitness, and is a featured contributor to Intent.com. Holly recently published her "Celebrity Shred" workout for ExerciseTV, is the current fitness model for WeightWatchers and just returned from the campaign trail working with a 2008 presidential candidate.