Exercise an ally when facing medical issues

October 5, 2013

More and more evidence points to the importance of exercise throughout every stage of our lives, up to and including serious illness. The idea that a debilitating disease eliminates the need for exercise is gone. Studies show that light exercise and other complementary medical techniques can enhance quality of life, decrease perception of pain and even enhance longevity.

As a cancer navigator, I often meet with people at very stressful periods of their lives. A new diagnosis of cancer, or of any serious illness, introduces the patient and family to a barrage of new words, medications and procedures. There is so much new information that often it can take several visits, phone calls and emails to take it all in. This is probably why I get some unusual looks from patients and family members when I start discussing exercise and “pre-habilitation.”

Pre-habilitation is the active process of getting your body ready for the surgery, chemotherapy or other procedures that may be indicated for your diagnosis. Think of it as getting a prize fighter ready for a big fight. Whether you have cancer, congestive heart failure, COPD or other serious illness, we need you in as great a physical shape as possible to get ready for this battle.

— Nutrition: Fighters are usually on strict diets and a rigorous exercise routine and employ sports psychology to prepare themselves for the big event. In the same way, you can prepare for your tangle with your new diagnosis.

Nutrition is so important during this time of stress for your body. Too much or too little of some foods can make your condition worse. Ask your provider for dietary suggestions or ask for a referral to a dietician. These people are trained to assist you in making good nutrition choices during this time of increased stress.

What about supplements? What is helpful, and what is a waste of money? Consider buying fruits and vegetables locally. Plan meals for the week based on what’s available from the local farmers market. As a rule of thumb, fresher is better and if the food comes in a plastic wrapper, avoid it.

— Exercise: Really? When I feel this bad? Yes, because it will help you feel better. Light exercise can help with joint stiffness, lower blood pressure, decrease your perception of pain, help your body with fluid balance and decrease swelling.

Some examples of self-paced exercises include yoga, Pilates, isometric exercises, large rubber bands and the ultimate in cost savings — washed-out empty milk cartons. That’s right, once you get the old milk smell out of them you can fill the empty carton with as much water as you can comfortably lift and you now have a portable weight lifting system.

While sitting in your recliner, you can do bicep curls, straight arm lifts and shoulder exercises. If it’s too heavy, pour some water out. Exercises getting too easy? Add some water. And don’t forget our local experts at the Southeastern Lifestyle Center for Fitness. Our exercise professionals can help you find ways to add light exercise to your medical regimen.

— Sports psychology: Great players will hit a wall at some point in their careers. Many use sports psychologists to prep for their games. In the same way, you can use similar experts to assist you in preparation for your battle with serious disease. Psychologists, pastors and good friends can help with the spiritual questions that arise with these tough illnesses.

Try guided meditation, walking a labyrinth, prayer beads or spiritual books. YouTube has a large selection of videos to help with meditation for the novice and there are apps for your smartphone to give you access to quick snatches of quiet and calm in a life that may seem suddenly alien to you.

These three complementary therapies — good food, light exercise and spiritual push-ups — can prop up the new pills, procedures and treatments that accompany your new diagnosis. Use them liberally.

For information about Southeastern Health’s Supportive Care program, call the Gibson Cancer Center at 910-671-5730.

Certified Physician Assistant Catherine Gaines is a patient navigator at Gibson Cancer Center, a part of Southeastern Health’s supportive care program.