The group of about 10 women kept inching toward the door, but then the topic would change, and they’d pause to hash it out. The Life with Cancer circuit training class at the Life with Cancer Family Center in Fairfax, in which they’d squatted, curled and stretched had ended 15 minutes ago, but the socializing afterward seemed just as essential to their well-being.
“I call it parking lot counseling,” said Debra Banning, an Annandale resident who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.” We would walk out together, and we’d share our stories and help each other and talk it out. I wasn’t one to go in and have talking groups, so this is like an oasis.”
The health benefits of fitness and socialization are long established. Now, some athletic and medical organizations across the country are connecting the two to extend those gains to people facing serious illness. Studies have already shown that exercise benefits people affected by diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s. Experts believe group exercise classes for these individuals — a population less likely to feel comfortable in a typical gym setting — can help even more.
Such classes “get people moving and they also provide a lot of psychosocial support and shared experience of other people who’ve gone through the same types of treatments and the same kind of psychological trauma,” said Jennifer Ligibel, a physician at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center .
Ligibel co-led a 2015 study of the 11-year-old Livestrong at the YMCA program, a 12-week group exercise regimen for cancer survivors available in 700 communities nationwide. She found that in addition to improving physically, participants reported improved quality of life, which she defines as physical, social and emotional functioning.
“There’s absolutely the social aspect, and I think this is especially important for people who are living with chronic diseases,” Ligibel said.
The group dynamic provides a common denominator most gyms can’t. “People can feel ashamed of their bodies, or they can feel ashamed of their fitness or doubt their capabilities,” said Keith Kaufman, a Washington, D.C.-area sports psychologist. “They might be afraid of being judged, but once they get in there and realize it’s a welcoming community, that can keep you coming back for more. That can be a major motivating factor for people.”
Medical fitness centers, which differ from commercial fitness facilities by incorporating physicians’ input, focusing on preventive care and offering illness-specific classes, also promote socialization. For instance, Valley Health Wellness and Fitness in Winchester, Va., has 100 classes per week, including Arthritis Water Workout and Rock Steady Boxing, which is designed to help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their reflexes and neuromuscular memory and slow the progression of symptoms.
“What happens is a phenomenon that I call a club within a club,” said Bob Boone, president and CEO of the Medical Fitness Association, which has about 1,400 member wellness centers, including Valley Health. “You have to have a support group around you that understands the sacrifices and commitments you’re individually making, and who better to do that than other people that are experiencing the same disease that you are and going through the same issues.”
There’s also a growing demand for certifications to instruct these specialized classes. Organizations such as the Cancer Exercise Training Institute and the National Stroke Association offer targeted certifications, while others have broader ones. The American College of Sports Medicine has offered a clinical exercise physiologist certification since 1975, when 21 people earned a certificate. In 2017, 885 people did. In fact, 2010 to 2017 brought an average of 793 certifications, compared to 339 between 2000 and 2009.
In 2017, the American Council on Exercise saw a 16 percent year-over-year increase in exam registrations for its medical exercise specialist certification.
The aging population is “helping, I think, to forge something that should have happened decades ago and that is that integration and coordination between health care and fitness and other important disciplines so that when we look at optimal health care, it really is a team sport,” said Cedric Bryant, ACE’s president and chief science officer.
Life with Cancer participants Michelle Stravitz of Fairfax and Ilana Gamerman of Vienna found exercising with friends so crucial to their battles with and recoveries from breast cancer that they created 2Unstoppable, an organization dedicated to connecting women who have or had cancer through exercise. Since its May launch, more than 100 members have set up a free online profile with information such as age, location and type of cancer that others can search.
“It’s like a Match.com for fitness buddies,” Stravitz said.
They also host local fitness events, such as monthly 2-mile Walk-n-Talks that aim to get people moving at a pace and in an environment that is comfortable for them.
The wellness trifecta of physical, psychological and social health has been part of the Life with Cancer program at Northern Virginia’s Inova Schar Cancer Institute for much of its 30-year history. Today, more than 8,000 people a year participate in the 100 fitness and movement classes available each month at locations in Alexandria, Fair Oaks, Fairfax and Leesburg.
“They can say things from their own experience that are very powerful and very meaningful,” said Drucilla Brethwaite, program director. “Even from a therapist or physical trainer, it’s not as meaningful as when it comes from someone who’s experiencing it at the moment.”
During the circuit class, instructor Susan Gilmore, had participants pair up. Often, they depended on each other for their workout. For instance, a pair would hook two resistance bands, face each other and pull back in a row. They’d also chat. And laugh. A lot.
“It gives you incentive to come to see your friends and be with your friends,” said Judy Hoovler, 70, of Falls Church, who has been attending classes since battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma 11 years ago. “I said, ‘I don’t need anybody.’ [But] you really do.”