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Patient Stories


Mike’s Story: How I Keep My Exercise Goals

Mike Foxworth, a FPN member and member of the Metro DC Area Support Group, shares how exercising with a group helps him keep his fitness goals.

Research suggests that exercise slows the progression of PN. But only if it is REGULAR exercise. We are far more likely to work out regularly if we enjoy it. Exercise can be hard to do. Where might joy be found? This story about a mis-interpreted cancer study suggests one location.

Research shows: the support of a group reduces stress

My wife and I like the video lectures sold by “The Great Courses.” In the series titled “Stress and your Body,” Stanford Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky tells a story about a research attempt to link stress to cancer. In his lecture, Sapolsky described a famous breast cancer study, wherein patients were required to participate in an intensive support group during a study on re-occurrence of breast cancer. Stress level measures went down. The patients did better. The researchers suggested that reduced stress would increase survival rates. This conclusion (“lower stress and cancer won’t come back”) was broadcast far and wide. Lots of press attention.

However, the results could not be consistently replicated. Why?

Sapolsky explains that one of the big problems with cancer research studies is getting human patients (unlike lab rats) to actually do the treatment being tested.

Does it make sense that a patient in a clinical trial would skip the treatment that could save his life?

Well, yes, it does. Cancer treatments can hurt or have horrible side effects. They take time. People don’t always keep their appointments. They skip their pills or their shots. And they lie about it.

When this behavior occurs, research results get ruined.

The support of the group keeps the treatment on track

Faced with results that could not be confirmed, the data was more closely examined. It turned out that a significant effect of group participation was to improve patient compliance with the terms of their study. In a group, patients support and encourage one another: “Did you take your meds today? Have you eaten? Do you feel awful? Yeah, me too. Let’s go get something to eat right now…” That is, being in a group can directly influence our participation in a treatment plan.

In the case of the breast cancer study, which was specifically designed to measure the effects of an intensive support group setting, the unexpectedly great increase in treatment compliance was so large, researchers could not tell if the benefit (which was real) was from lower stress or better compliance. Years later, we still don’t know if reducing stress improves cancer survival, but we do know that social support can increase willingness to stick with a difficult treatment.

And how does this relate to exercise?

What does this tell me about exercise for PN patients? Do something you enjoy. And social interaction can be a significant part of that enjoyment.

For example, from 2004 to 2011 I used my Wii game system, mostly my Wii Fit with balance board, every morning before work. Loved it. Like runners love to get out in the morning and run. But by 2012 my PN made it impossible to keep using my Fit. I could no longer balance on the board.

My wife and I have done water aerobics off and on for more than 40 years. We now do them regularly. Physically, this is great exercise for me – supported by the water, I can move my legs and feet in ways my impaired balance would not otherwise allow. I enjoy it. But what keeps me coming is the opportunity to be among people I enjoy. I talk. And talk. I try to be respectful of our long-suffering teacher, but not to the exclusion of socializing. For me, this is a winning combination.

Socialization is key to keeping up exercise

Until about a year ago, I enjoyed the gym. I liked the way it made me feel, but in terms of enjoyment it did not hold a candle to my socializing-enhanced water aerobics class. It was solitary, and I found it too easy to skip. For the past year I set up some home PT exercises and some exercise with my dog. But I can no longer safely do many of them (the dog is getting noticeably older, too). I’m wondering if I should go back to the lonely exercises on the machines at the gym. I tried Silver Sneakers, but my balance, then, wasn’t good enough to do most steps or bad enough to exclude other exercise; I may try again. I’m trying Chair Yoga but haven’t learned the routines well enough to turn my attention to chatting with fellow participants. I think what I need is a social group of coffee drinkers who meet at the gym and then go visit and talk afterwards. Not sure how to find them.

My point: we will only REGULARLY do exercise if, in some sense, we enjoy it. Social interaction can be an important factor in contributing to that enjoyment.

Mike Foxworth is a member of the Metro DC Area Support Group. To learn more about the Metro DC Support Group, go to their website here. To learn more about support groups in our network like the Metro DC Support Group that are based throughout the US and Canada, check here.

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