Exercise for Recovery

Illness and disability require a different approach to exercise, allowing for low levels of energy, consideration of pain and other side effects. But do the restrictions mean that exercise should not be considered at all?

Low level exercise benefits
Research has shown that even low level exercise has a positive effect on general mobility and flexibility, with the added bonus of improving mental well-being. When I had a friend recovering from a heart attack in her early 40’s, her capacity to exercise was severely compromised. She was advised to go on the walking machine at the lowest rate, starting with only a minute at a time. Compared to her previous physical activity, she thought it was ludicrous and would not make any difference. But she hadn’t considered the impact of the injury to her heart and how much her fitness levels had deteriorated. She went ahead with the very low level exercise regime, and was surprised to see that it did make a difference. It became the gentle beginning of a slow but steady incline towards health and strength. She is now back doing what she enjoys: renovating her house.

Can exercise help fight cancer?
Regular gentle exercise can reduce risk factors for cancer such as obesity, hormone imbalance (like insulin), and acidity in the body. Because of the mental well-being obtained by exercising, it helps fight the depression that often accompanies cancer. Research has shown that those people with cancer who actively engage in a positive approach to their diagnosis have a higher percentage of recovery or longevity than those who sink into an inactive acceptance of their condition.

Knowing when to rest, when to exercise
It all depends on what your situation is, but if it is in the realms of recovery from surgery or managing chronic illness then gentle exercise is how you will make the most of your body’s own innate ability to heal itself. If you have a fever, nausea and vomiting then you are in the active phase of illness and it is better not to exercise, allowing all available energy to fight the infection.

Decrease lymphoedema
Lymphoedema happens after surgery which interferes with the normal lymph system: for example a radical mastectomy where lymph glands are removed around the breast and under-arm. Gently exercising after you have recovered from surgery will help the build-up of lymph fluid, helping it to move into collateral drainage pathways where it is reabsorbed. It may not remove all the fluid, but gentle and regular exercise will help with the management of it, reduce the risk of infection and increase function of the limb.

Regenerative exercise
Yoga and Pilates are considered regenerative exercises. They can be easily modified to be low impact, slow moving, focussing on nourishing the body with deep breathing and gentle stretches.If you are unsure of how much you should do, consult a Physiotherapist and see if you can enrol in a course run by health care professionals.

What about Tai Chi?
The beautiful thing about Tai Chi is the mind-body connection. It is completely integrated as breathing control flows in line with specific movements. The energy within the meridiens of the body are allowed to open, generating power within that flow and avoiding stagnation.
It is inevitable that you will feel better in your mind, be calmer and have greater flexibility, balance and agility if you do Tai Chi regularly. The reason you see the elderly doing this in the park is because it is not too demanding on the body. And yet the effects are obvious to participants.

Exercise to reduce chronic inflammation
Inflammation is a vital part of the body’s immune system response as it defends itself against infection and damaged tissues. The healing process can be helped by gentle exercise which increases blood flow so that oxygen and nutrients can promote healing. Swelling from chronic inflammation can be reduced as it helps excess fluid move. Lack of exercise is in fact listed as a risk factor for chronic inflammation.

So if you are in a position to begin some gentle exercise, but worried that it might make you feel worse, think again. Do what is in your own capacity, even if you think like my friend did that it was too insignificant to count. Consult your Doctor to find out what is best for you at this stage.

Erica Fotineas
September 2017

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