Healing Through Exercise

I see articles all the time about how we should be exercising to stay healthy. But what is even more important is how we can use exercise for healing. Exercise is incredibly therapeutic.

The first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) was Earl Shaffer, a World War Two veteran who did it “to walk off the war.” Now Warrior Hike is helping veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to realize the same therapeutic benefits of long distance hiking. They support groups of veterans that hike the AT, the Continental Divide, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Florida Trail. It is such a positive way to help veterans transition back into civilian life.

Exercise helped my friend, Buzz, recover from a double mastectomy after her third bout of breast cancer. During her radiation treatments, she was getting exhausted. But Buzz realized that to get energy, she was going to have to expend energy. So she started walking. She couldn’t go far but she felt better when she walked. It was difficult to exercise during her chemo.  When she finished chemo, she started walking again to rebuild her body and get over the toxic effects of the chemo drugs.

Buzz would send me texts reporting her progress. I encouraged her to keep at it. Every day she wanted to do better and positive feedback from me helped increase her confidence. She kept pushing further on each walk and over time her speed increased. When she hit 16 minutes per mile, she decided to enter the Princess Half Marathon at Disney World with me. The race would be one year from her double mastectomy and finishing that race would be a great way to kick cancer’s butt once and for all.

She started training in earnest and as expected had self-doubts. Heck, the most she had ever walked before was 4 miles. But she kept at it. There were days that she wanted to quit.  Buzz kept this mantra in her mind “Quitters never make it to the finish line.” As she got stronger, she looked forward to getting up to go out walking.

Race weekend was exciting for Buzz. She had never been in a race before. She was in awe of the whole race experience from the Expo to the organization of the bag check and corrals, and the shear number of port-a-potties.

When the race started, she was nervous because so many other runners were zipping by her. But she remembered what I had told her – start slow for the first third of the race then speed up for the next third, saving as much energy to kick it in for the final third. Buzz stayed focused on that race strategy.

When she hit the half way mark of the race, she heard Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” being played. Buzz felt empowered. “Yes, this is me. I have gone from chemo and not being able to walk to feeling strong.” She didn’t feel tired; she felt energized.  She started passing some of those runners who had zipped by her at the start. When the finish line appeared, she took a moment to soak in the experience and even stopped for a picture with Mickey Mouse. As she crossed the finish line, she knew she had kicked the door closed on all the bad stuff that cancer had thrown at her. She had gotten her body back.

Buzz’s oncologist was extremely impressed that a year after her surgery she walked a half marathon. Her doctor even uses Buzz as the poster child for her other cancer patients. She demonstrates how to be a survivor. She was living life; she was not a victim.  Exercise had helped her heal.