It’s a real problem, exercise. If you thought it was hard to get motivated to get off the sofa under normal circumstances, chemo makes it Mission Impossible.
Never mind that you know exercise will probably help chemo work better. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve been physically active one way or another all your life and you know those endorphins are just what you need. Just thinking about getting up and moving around makes you breathless, Hell, merely putting on your clothes has you panting like 15 minutes of brisk walking at 6 mph, which you can’t do. You can’t even amble for 15 minutes.
Maybe like me, you’ve been wanting a recumbent exercise bike so you can get those back muscles into shape in front of the TV but the expense is beyond you right now. Everyone has told you yoga is just the thing, especially hot yoga, which releases endorphins like nothing else. But you’d have to leave the house for that, which means wearing yourself out getting dressed. And if you spend money on a yoga class, you’re dipping into your recumbent exercise bike fund. Why is life is so freakin’ hard?
I bought myself 3 sets of dumbbells––2 kg, 3 kg, 4 kg. You need next to no room to use dumbbells. You can even use them sitting down. I have this book by Rosemary Conley which is full of exercises with dumbbells. I’ve misplaced the book but I remember my favourite pyramiding sequence.
Pyramiding, for those who don’t know, is doing the same set of exercises with progressively heavier weights: 12 reps with 2 kg, 10 reps with 3 kg, 8 reps with 4 kg. I encourage everyone, even you healthy folks, to look up Rosemary Conley’s workout books. Rosemary is an older woman who has the body of a 25-year-old and does not show off––i.e., you will be able to do all the exercises, (or you will be able to work your way up to them). There’s no super-bendy stuff that only the double-jointed can achieve and if you follow her instructions for progression, you won’t hurt yourself.
And no, I have no connection to Rosemary Conley. I will not profit if you buy her books.
Now, lifting weights is not aerobic exercise like walking––i.e., technically. I maintain that any exercise is aerobic for as long as you do it. So, for example, sixty seconds of squats is the aerobic equivalent of sixty seconds of walking, even if you do the squats slowly. In fact, you’re better off doing them slowly instead of popping up and down swinging your arms. I use the weights: when I squat, I lift my arms in front to shoulder level, and lower them as I straighten up again. You can do that with or without weights. Doing squats or lunges first is best, as you are exercising the biggest muscles in the body. According to my favourite aerobics instructor, you’re better off moving from the largest muscles to the smallest. (This is the same aerobics instructor who took me out drinking in Chicago one weekend and caused me to experience my first––and hopefully last––hangover the next day. She’s also the reason I’m unafraid of karaoke, but I digress.)
Starting with the lower body is especially wise for women because that’s where our body strength is concentrated, while men’s strength is above the waist. Men can punch like a kangaroo, we can kick like a mule; it’s a child-bearing thing.
Anyway, your heart-rate will increase more when you raise your arms so don’t wear yourself out too soon. Warm up with squats and lunges. If you have knee problems, or if your knees hurt when you do the standard lunge, don’t lunge forward. Step back instead and dip, keeping your posture straight so you go straight down and straight up again.
And whether squatting or lunging, be sure to keep your knees directly over your toes––don’t bend your legs so that your knees go forward or you really will have knee trouble. Squatting should be a movement as if you are about to sit down in a chair without looking behind you––you stick your butt out. It feels like it looks funny and it does, so if someone in your house makes fun of you, smack ’em with a wet towel and tell them that’s from me.
Anyway, after you’ve warmed up with squats and lunges, which don’t need much space, move on to upper body exercises with the dumbbells, which need even less space. (Yes, you can use soup cans or bottles of water but you’re better off tightening your belt, biting the bullet, and buying yourself some dumbbells in cheerful colours––you’re more likely to continue doing the exercises and you won’t get caught short if someone else in the house gets hungry or thirsty.)
I’m not going to go into a list of exercises here––you can either get the Conley books or you can find plenty of exercises online for free. I like the Conley exercises because after two weeks, my arms have been transformed from loose flesh hanging on pipe-cleaners to toned and muscled limbs that I want to show off by going sleeveless everywhere, even in winter. The arms are the most easily toned area of the body; seeing what you can accomplish in a mere fourteen days (give or take; one size does not fit all and ymmv) can motivate you to keep going with your exercise.
The advantage here is that you don’t have to get dressed and leave the house; you can watch TV or listen to music or audio books. So if you’re allergic to the gym, this is a doable alternative.
Me, I actually like the gym. My only problem is, there are seldom enough free weights/dumbbells to go around and someone always runs off with just the set I need––or worse, half of the set I need––just when I need it. The gym also costs money and you have to factor in the time it takes to travel to and from––and if you’re having chemo, you might use up all your energy just travelling to the gym.
And then there’s the matter of being immune-compromised––gyms are germ farms, as are shower rooms. If you do visit the gym, you should stay out of the steam room and the chlorine-flavoured soup that is the swimming pool.
But I still like the gym. I always go at the least-crowded times, so if i need help with a machine or if I have a question, there’s always an employee free to help me out. People with honest jobs don’t usually have this option, which is another good reason to keep a set of dumbbells in the house.
I also like exercises classes. I like moving in unison with a group; it’s very social and most of the people are really nice. But I’m not feeling up to that sort of thing right now. I think once I finish chemo, I’ll try hot yoga at one of the Fierce Grace studios in London, which are the easiest for me to get to, and I’ll try out the various machines at our local leisure centre, which is closer but slightly less convenient for public transportation.
If you have never been terribly physical because you’re self-conscious or because you were always picked last for mandatory school sports or whatever, take back your birthright––joyful movement for its own sake. Start small, with dumbbells at home, where there is no one to feel self-conscious in front of. It’s true about the endorphins––you’ll really feel better psychologically.
Many of us were robbed of the enjoyment of sports and/or dancing because we didn’t do it well. The thing is, the point is not to do it well but to do it. Your body needs it; your brain needs it. You deserve to think of dancing and/or playing sports as fun, because these things are fun and they make you feel good. And in case you didn’t know, you deserve to feel good.
Okay. Arise, go forth, and conquer.
Or just stand up. That’s a good start.