A health and fitness class for cancer survivors gives women a chance to gain strength and share their experiences.
Zoe Nicholie thought she was getting enough exercise by walking her dog every day.
But then a trainer at the Midtown YWCA in Minneapolis kept telling her, "If you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious without a breath while you're exercising, you need to work harder."
"I realized I wasn't quite pushing myself enough to get my heart rate up," said Nicholie, 62.
Previously an avid runner, Nicholie had come a long way just to get to that point. In the aftermath of her first treatments of chemo and radiation for breast cancer, she had struggled just to walk around the block in her Minneapolis neighborhood.
Now, she and other women who are cancer survivors sit on exercise balls, do cardio work and lift weights as part of a class called Cancer Recovery Exercise for Women (CREW). The class was inspired by breast-cancer survivor Wendy Rahn, who started a Twin Cities nonprofit called Survivors' Training in light of studies that found exercise can play a pivotal role in recovery.
The CREW class at the Midtown Y is believed to be the only local gym class designed specifically for cancer survivors.
"It really appealed to me to be in a class with women who have been through similar experiences," said Nicholie, who is now in remission.
While the class helps promote physical well-being, it also gives the women a chance to share their experiences.
At the beginning of a recent CREW class, they discussed their frustrations (a drug that caused weakness and exhaustion, for example) and triumphs (making it through a 45-minute indoor cycling class, fitting exercise into a travel schedule).
"I found I would get up and go to the class because of the camaraderie, whereas if I had been on my own I might say, 'Oh, I guess not today,'" said Nicholie. "I also feel like I can go now to the Y and use the machines in a way I wasn't comfortable with before."
Kelli Klein, a fitness coordinator at the Y, started CREW after she took a class at Survivors' Training, which also teaches trainers how to work with cancer survivors.
Speaking to the women in a recent CREW class, Klein is quick to remind participants that their progress will be different. "It's not going to be a nice, slow, steady progression -- it's a series of up and crash, up and crash," she said. "You're a cancer patient."
One of her goals is to make sure each CREW participant feels comfortable going to a gym on her own.
"I want you see what it feels like to get on [a spin bike] and adjust them so that you can go into a spin class and say to the instructor, I'm in Kelli's CREW, and I'll hang through your class," she said.
In turn, she educates the group fitness instructors at the Y as well.
"All the instructors at Midtown know that my overall philosophy is that everyone is welcome in every class. If you walk into a step class, I want those instructors to say, 'This might get complicated -- but don't get discouraged.'"
Klein plans to add to the program at the Y. Judging from the number of calls she has been fielding, that shouldn't be a problem. The response has come not only from cancer patients: Klein has been fielding calls from the medical community as well -- mostly, she says, from nurses who work with cancer patients.
"I'm getting calls out of the blue from oncology nurses," she said. "These are the people who are working hands-on every day with these patients and know how critical exercise is."
Meanwhile, Rahn is hoping other venues will pick up on the idea. She knows firsthand the benefits of exercise.
"One thing that happens to cancer survivors is you get out of active treatment, and then you get in a dark place where you're wondering, Who am I now? How do I deal with this?" said Rahn, who's also a certified fitness trainer. "Exercise got me out of that place and made me feel like I was in charge of my health again. That psychological benefit is what keeps people going."
For Nicholie, the challenge is adjusting to her new and changed body:
"I don't have breasts, I have gained weight because of lack of exercise, and I have a body that causes me chronic pain. But I feel like this class really has helped me appreciate that my new body is fine. I can be at the Y and exercise and feel fine about myself."
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Twin Cities freelance writer.
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