Physical activity and exercise are essential to recovery for cancer survivors. Pilates is an excellent approach to healing that engages the mind, body, and spirit. It is able to meet you where you are, and can be done throughout your life and wherever you are, even while seated.
The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors recommend that cancer survivors should avoid inactivity and return as soon as possible to normal activities after surgery, and during radiation and adjuvant treatment (chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and /or targeted therapy). They recommend regular physical activity, strength training at least twice a week, and to aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week.
Physical activity offers other benefits for cancer survivors such as the following.
- Boosts positive mood
- Improves physical condition and movement
- Improves body image
- Increases sexuality
- Decreases depression
- Decreases fatigue
- Maintains bone health
We know that exercise is good for us. We just need to start somewhere and feel safe. Pilates is a gentle, safe place to begin.
Beth Mast, who is an occupational therapist as well as a Pilates instructor, underwent 16 months of treatment including a double mastectomy, breast implants, chemotherapy, and radiation. She used Pilates daily throughout her breast cancer journey; it is a form of exercise that is always available to her, even on really bad days.
Here are the benefits Beth has found with her Pilates practice:
- You can do Pilates in many different positions: supine (on the back), prone (on the stomach), side lying, standing, or seated.
- The exercises and equipment can be modified for any level.
- You will be able to use the affected arm(s) more easily and naturally since Pilates is a whole body exercise system that includes the arms and legs in the movements.
- The principles help you to live in the moment by keeping you focused on moving properly, with control, and without momentum.
- Deep rib cage breathing and the multi-dimensional breathing patterns help to ease tension, foster lymphatic drainage, and stretch tight areas affected by scars.
- Pilates provides a gentle introduction or re-introduction to exercise.
- Pilates increases muscle strength, especially in the back of the shoulders and middle back where you need it after breast cancer surgery.
- Pilates increases your ability to perform activities of daily living as you build core strength, allowing you to roll over and move from different positions more easily.
- Pilates improves muscle proprioception and kinesthesia (awareness of your body in space) often lost after surgery where nerves and muscles may have been inadvertently cut.
- Pilates strengthens the transverse abdominas: a muscle that is very important for back stability and strength after a TRAM flap (transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous) or DIEP flap (deep inferior epigastric perforator) breast reconstruction procedure.
- Pilates can help with bladder control problems, such as stress incontinence, a common complication of menopause. Many treatments for breast cancer can induce menopause in women who are not yet menopausal. Pilates helps by strengthening the pelvic floor muscles, the muscles responsible for bladder control.
- Pilates takes the focus off of the damaged areas of your body and what you can’t do, and instead reinforces what you can do. You’ll appreciate all of the movement your body is capable of, no matter how “small” or limited at first, and its capacity to heal.
This article adapted from Pilates for Breast Cancer Survivors, by Naomi Aaronson and Ann Marie Turo.