Exercise is good medicine for cancer patients

 Matt Jackson sets out chairs, turns on music and the small group gathered for the Monday morning Fitness for You class on the third floor of the Simmons Cancer Institute join him as he begins leading them through a stretching warmup. The mood is light and casual as participants move through the 45-minute workout.

John and Linda Leitermann have been taking classes for the past year and a half. Linda was diagnosed with lymphoma two and a half years ago and is currently in remission. John was her steady while she was sick. “I was so thankful to have him,” she said, when she sees others coming to class alone.

Both are pleased with the instructors and how attentive they are to what someone can or can’t do. “They’re very well trained and educated,” said John.

She learned about the Side-by-Side Wellness Program from her doctor at the Simmons Cancer Institute. “It helps to get out and get active,” said Linda, who worked out at the FitClub before her diagnosis. “Overall I feel better. When you’re at home, you tend to sit. I’m thankful to have this opportunity.”

There are others who are worse off than she is. She can come in dragging and leave feeling energized. “I feel better when I’m here,” said Linda. “If I can’t handle something, I back off.” Instructors tell students not to push till you hurt.

“It’s nice to be able to come with Linda,” said John. The retired couple have always been pretty active. They come three days a week for Pilates and Fitness for You and have made a lot of new friends. “We have fun in class,” he added.

The free classes are open to anyone who has been touched by cancer, whether they are currently in treatment or have finished treatment. The program has been in place since the Simmons Cancer Institute opened in 2010. “The response has been pretty positive,” said Kristi Lessen, who serves as the outreach and wellness coordinator.

Cancer is about more than treating the disease. Physicians often refer their patients to the Side-by-Side Wellness Program, which provides a supportive environment for cancer patients and their families and caregivers and is designed to treat the whole patient by addressing their emotional, physical and social needs.

Class offerings include drumming, Fitness for You, Pilates, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and yoga and adaptive yoga. Individuals can work out on the treadmill or elliptical or use the electric massage chair when classes are not in session. Reiki sessions are available by appointment.

Participants can come to whatever classes suit their schedules. Some try everything while others are dedicated to a specific class. Lessen would love to see more attend and be able to offer more classes, such as art therapy. Adding classes is a matter of finding instructors and time.

Matt Jackson, an instructor at Springfield Karate and Fitness, teaches Fitness for You, Tai Chi and Qi Gong and Carol Dunaway, a certified yoga instructor, teaches yoga and adaptive yoga and Pilates. Each instructor adapts the class to meet the needs and abilities of their students. The average class size is five to eight participants and the most popular class offerings are Tai Chi, Qi Gong and yoga.

The classes are about more than the fitness aspect; there’s the socialization aspect as well. “There’s a family-friendly atmosphere,” said Lessen. “It’s very supportive.” Participants share similar experiences and form bonds with others. And they have lost people. “It’s hard when you get used to seeing them all the time,” she said.

Studies show that exercise helps cancer patients feel better about themselves and may even reduce the risk of recurrence. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety, which is a big component when one is going through treatment and for caregivers as well. So many tell her afterwards how much better they feel.

“It helps them get back into a routine,” said Lessen, who added that exercise should be part of a patient’s overall treatment plan. Most physicians believe that as well. While patients may not be able to exercise when first beginning treatment, they can ease into it and gradually build up their strength during and after treatment.

Lessen recommends anyone interested in taking a class talk to their physician before starting an exercise program. “I don’t want them to overdo it,” she said.

“So many tell me they never knew this existed,” added Lessen.

For more information about the programs offered or for a class schedule, visit www.siumed.edu/cancer.

Roberta Codemo is a regular contributor to Illinois Times. A health and wellness writer, she may be reached at rcodemo@hotmail.com.

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