Alberta Cancer Foundation

Ask the Expert: The Benefits of Core Exercises and Practising Yoga During Treatment

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I have cancer and am in treatment. Can I continue my yoga practise?

Susan Bocchinfuso is a physical therapist and registered yoga teacher at Oncology Rehab Calgary. She lauds yoga as a great tool in helping manage cancer treatment side effects, but suggests proceeding with caution to avoid injury or further discomfort. “The ancient Indian practise of meditation, breath work and poses has physical and mental benefits that help with weak or stiff muscles, decrease stress and increase your general sense of well-being,” she says. “But it can also be a great way to injure yourself if you are not careful.”

Knees, wrists and the spine are three of the most common areas prone to injury in the general population. “Almost everyone has experienced back pain of some type at one time or another,” Bocchinfuso says. “Protecting your back in yoga class after cancer treatments should become your number one priority. Hormone treatments can make your vertebrae weaker and, in some cases, more prone to fractures.” To that end, she advises yoga practisers keep a straight back during bends, for starters. You may not be able to bend as far, but “you will be doing your back a world of good.”

To avoid injury to wrists, Boccinfuso suggests displacing weight evenly over your hand, and avoid “dumping” onto the wrist with moves like downward dog. Ideally the thumb side of your wrist should have more weight than the pinky side. “If you are experiencing pain and tingling in your fingers after chemotherapy treatments you need to pay special attention to your form,” Bocchinfuso explains. “Altered sensation will make it harder for you to figure out proper wrist alignment.” Try this to ensure you are in the right position: when you are in downward dog you should be able to lift the pinky side of your hand off the mat.

Since doing yoga is one of the few times in our lives we reach our arms above our head, it’s important to stretch your shoulders with caution, especially if you have had radiation therapy for breast cancer, says Bocchinfuso. “Although yoga helps lengthen tight muscles, forcing irradiated tissue to stretch too far too fast can cause micro-trauma to the area, which will impede healing.”

The benefits of doing core-only exercises and what should I start with

Your core consists of pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles, the diaphragm, deeper-layer back muscles and even the muscles that run along your spine to help it keep upright.

According to Patricia Maybury, the owner of Calgary’s Fitness Table core strength studio, strengthening your core leads to lots of benefits, like:

  • Flat, strong low abs (and the ability to pull them in, not just zip them into your jeans)
  • Decreased lower back pain
  • Better posture, which improves your energy and mood (and even makes you appear taller and more confident)
  • Improved mobility in day-to-day activities and in your athletic performance

Maybury says breathing is where core strength begins: “Lying down on your back, with one hand on your chest, and one hand on your belly, take a deep breath in. Notice where the breath was directed? If it went into your chest, then the diaphragm got stuck and wouldn’t let the breath move down,” she says. “Try again and see if you can breathe into your bottom hand instead of the top one.”

She continues: “On the exhale, try to make your waist long and small, using your transverse abdominis wrapping like a corset. Once you’ve mastered that lying down, try doing it in different positions without the feedback from your hands. Try it during an activity like walking or golfing, and see if you can still activate your diaphragm while you are in motion.”

 

Ask our experts questions about general health, cancer prevention and treatment. Please submit them via email to letters@myleapmagazine.ca. Remember, this advice is never a substitute for talking directly to your family doctor.