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Achieve Your Goals, No Matter the Obstacle

wifa vox women's health Aug 01, 2022

Achieve Your Fitness Goals Beyond Cancer
By Stacey Mann, CES, CPT

On a Tuesday evening, ten weeks ago, twelve women logged on to a new fitness class I was teaching. Even though they were logging in from all parts of the country, the women had common goals for this progressive exercise class. Becoming stronger, gaining flexibility and losing weight were the top health goals of the group. In the coming weeks, I would gain perspective into each woman’s life, help them achieve their goals and understand the obstacles they faced along the way. 

There was an atmosphere to this class that was unlike any other I had taught. Not only was it completely online, but prior to class, I had the opportunity to meet with each participant, something that never happened in-person. During that initial meeting, we discussed their individual goals and how to achieve them. We worked through some easy movements as a baseline for progress. We learned to trust each other. I trusted that they would show up for the next ten weeks of class, they trusted that I would lead them on their fitness journey. Our time together would be enhanced by that first meeting and as they began to pop onto the screen, we started down a path of exercise, friendship and unwavering support.   

The first class sealed us together. After quick introductions, I hit play and “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones blared through the speaker and we began our warm-up. The forty-five minute class went just as expected, lots of sweaty cardio, body weight resistance training and that awesome feeling of accomplishment floated in during the cool down. 

Not one of the twelve women was new to exercise. In fact they had all been active in the past. Some admitted to loving exercise, others loathed it but understood the benefits. They had fallen out of the habit of exercise, something that is relatable to most people. This class was their kickstart, a way to reach their goals and discover a bit more about themselves. In addition to their common goals of increasing strength, flexibility and losing some weight, these women had something very powerful in common. Within the last year, they were diagnosed with, treated for and were now survivors of cancer. Together, they would rediscover how to move in their new bodies, bodies that had been through harsh treatments, altered through surgeries and still dealing with side effects from medications meant to prevent cancer recurrence. 

According to the American Cancer Society moderate to vigorous exercise following a cancer diagnosis can improve surgical outcomes, reduce symptoms and manage side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Regular exercise increases survivorship by 50-60%, particularly for breast and colorectal cancers. As a Cancer Exercise Specialist who has helped over a hundred women return to exercise after diagnosis, I have witnessed what movement of any kind, such as walking a short distance each day, can do for a cancer survivor. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that all levels of walking, even levels below the recommended guidelines, were associated with a lower mortality risk. 

Robert Butler of the National Aging Institute once said “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the world.” While powerful motivators such as the desire to increase survival rates and prevent recurrence exist, most doctors are focused on medical care and tell the patient that exercise will help them yet they do not provide resources for how to exercise. Walking into the local gym and beginning an exercise regime or returning to exercises done before cancer can lead to injury and be intimidating to a new cancer survivor. A Cancer Exercise Specialist (CES), who is a health and fitness professional specifically trained in the treatments and side effects of multiple types of cancer can help individuals exercise safely after a cancer diagnosis and appropriately modify exercises to meet the needs of the cancer patient or survivor. Finding a CES can be done by searching National directories on cancerexercisespecialist.com and 2Unstoppable.org.  

The Terrific Twelve, as that Tuesday class would come to be called, needed to be set on a path to movement and were at a loss on how to get started. They had motivation, they had goals, and needed to know how to move in their new bodies. They also had me, a Cancer Exercise Specialist to guide them. 

Anne, one of the Terrific Twelve, was a physical therapist. Self-admittedly, Anne could write a recovery plan for a client easily with great success but when it came to helping herself, she didn’t know where to begin. A double mastectomy with reconstruction surgery left her with implants under her pectoral muscles. She felt weak in her upper body and had trouble lifting even light objects. Due to the side effects from chemotherapy, she no longer had the endurance to walk further than a block, and her office parking garage was a half-mile from the building entrance. Along with each woman in the class, Anne needed a plan. Her goal was to return to work, to be able to lift patients and be back in a field she loved. Anne’s plan and the plans of the other women looked very similar. 

The first step for the Terrific twelve was to write down their goals and any obstacles they may face along the path to those goals. They shared these goals with me during our one-on-one meetings prior to class. Goals varied in complexity for each woman. Reducing the lingering side effects of chemotherapy or radiation was to be expected. While a goal such as being able to fold the laundry again without arms feeling tired might seem trite to healthy individuals, it is life changing for cancer survivors. 

The roadmap to success for this group of women would look different and would need to include support from the whole class. This would help them stay motivated and feel a part of something bigger. Pairing them together with another class participant would give them an instant accountability partner, so each woman got a “buddy” to text, call or email. 

The Terrific Twelve had now accepted their goals, aided by writing them out and now they were receiving support and motivation from their accountability partner. Next, each woman needed to commit to attending all ten classes,moving more in between class days and repeating the class recording at least twice before we met the following week. All twelve, including Anne, now had their goals in sight and knew how to achieve them. 

Over the next ten weeks, they learned how to move in their new bodies, the ones that cancer had ravaged. We worked together to evolve and modify exercises to suit each woman’s challenges. At the start of each class, everyone would report their progress and announce any successes - large or small - they had that week. The music would start, the favorite warm-up song “Love Shack” by the B-52’s boosting everyone’s energy levels. We worked with resistance bands, weights, sweated with cardio and always finished with a good stretching session. The Terrific Twelve always ended the classes feeling better than they had when we started. They felt more connected with each other and within their own bodies. 

As we came upon the last class, ten weeks into the process, I asked each woman to submit five things they had gained from the class and answer one important question - did they achieve their goal? Most women had achieved all or part of their goals. If they hadn’t achieved a goal, they knew they were on the right path and that goal was closer than it had been ten weeks ago. They felt stronger, more flexible, less achy and had more energy. When Anne wrote about her five things, she listed the ability to do laundry without fatiguing, having stamina to run a 5k, the flexibility to reach to a high cabinet and feeling stronger in her legs. Anne’s fifth thing she had gained is best said in her own words. Anne wrote “I am much more confident that I can and I will deal with the side effects of medication and continue to get stronger.” As for her goal of returning to work? Anne starts back next week, part-time.  

The Terrific Twelve proved that no matter what obstacles or challenges you are facing, you can still achieve your goals with support, accountability and determination. As they followed their goal roadmaps, their focus shifted from what their bodies can’t do to what they could do. When swayed from your goal, shift your focus. Define your goal, find a support system and commit to yourself, just like the Terrific Twelve.