Don’t sweat the little things!
I don’t like waiting … waiting for results, waiting in lines, waiting in traffic, or waiting for elevators. Regarding the latter, if I’m only going 1-3 flights, stairs are often quicker anyway, plus, I feel like I’m doing something pro’active’ for my health. A typical flight of stairs might be 16-20 steps, that’s 8-10 repetitions lifting my entire body weight with each leg. Do this a few times a day, all year-long, as a habit, and it can help maintain leg strength and muscle mass. Consistently taking the elevator can contribute to loss of leg strength and muscle mass. Use it or lose it – just like muscles that atrophy from lack of use while in a cast.
A hidden downside to losing muscle mass is that it can contribute to weight gain, fat weight. Muscles are good calorie burners, when used, if not used, they atrophy. If one continues eating what they normally do, they will gradually put on weight, because less of the calories consumed will being burned by muscle, so the unused calories get stored as fat. Initially, this small amount of weight may hardly be noticeable, but after a number of years it can be substantial, affecting health and quality of life. This makes climbing stairs more tiring, which can perpetuate elevator use and de-conditioning.
Major lifestyle changes, including exercising or the lack thereof, can start this way. Don’t overlook the little things in a day – like taking the stairs or shopping – embracing these small physical tasks can lead to change. Shopping provides another simple opportunity to make a small change. Park farther away from the doors rather than waiting for a spot up close, or, return your cart. This may seem trivial, and in terms of calories burned, it may be, but it helps change the habits of our mind, habits which often prevent us from getting out the door for walks or other forms of exercise.
During chemotherapy, stairs served as my unofficial barometer of drug efficacy. Prior to my cancer diagnosis I found myself getting tired after going up a single flight of stairs, my quads would burn as if I had just run up a hill. This was a big warning sign that something was wrong with me. Each day after starting chemo I would walk up stairs to see how my legs reacted, after a few days I notice a significant difference – my quads did not burn after getting to the top. I knew then that the drugs were working, they were killing the cancer and I started to regain the weight I had lost from cancer related muscle wasting (cachexia). For cancer patients with balance issues and wanting to use stairs, having someone assist you would be a good idea, certainly, use the handrail.
For those cancer patients accustom to exercising, yet finding themselves preparing for cancer treatment, in the midst treatment, or recovering from it, they might have to lower their exercise expectations. I’ve talked with a number of cancer survivors frustrated about feeling lousy during workouts, or unable to complete a workout like they could before cancer. First, I commend them for continuing to exercise throughout their cancer experience. However, cancer treatments can have a significant effect of on the body – anemia, muscle weakness from anti-inflammatory steroids, lymphedema, surgical pain and tightness, neuropathy in the hands and feet, and the yet unknown sources of treatment related fatigue. In spite of these treatment related obstacles, many cancer patients do exercise, and some quite a lot. However, returning to normal gradually, or with different strategies, may be in order rather than jumping right back into their old workout routine.
One strategy I and others have found helpful, and has long been touted by former US Olympic marathoner, Jeff Galloway, is walk/run. For me, building up to walking 4.2 miles per hour at 11% grade on my treadmill, a good workout in itself, became physically awkward, running seemed like it would be more comfortable. However, starting out running a little bit at a time was easier than trying to cover 3 miles all at once right out of the gate. I used walk/run, beginning with walking 100 meters, then running 100 meters. That soon progressed to 200 meters, 400 meters, then eventually 3 miles straight, and soon I was back to my normal running routine. Rest/exercise, coast/pedal-paddle-row, float/swim, etc., could be applied to other activities.
A number of cancer survivors have returned to the highest levels of competition as professional athletes: tennis players Ross Hutchins and Alisa Kleybanova; hockey players Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu; major league pitchers Jon Lester and Dave Dravecky; and runner Gabe Grunewald; among many others. The fitness demands of those sports are significant, yet their bodies recovered, and so can yours, probably not to the level of those professionals, but to a level where you are not confined to the couch. Little things can add up!