Dr. Martha Eddy is an exercise physiologist, registered movement therapist, dance educator, and published author. In 1999 she co-founded Moving For Life, a non-profit organization that conducts specialized exercise classes and wellness programming for people with cancer and other chronic conditions in New York City. Her latest book is Mindful Movement distributed by the University of Chicago Press. In this article, Dr. Martha explains the importance of exercising for recovery during the cancer journey.
Where did the inspiration for Moving For Life come from?
The initial concept for Moving For Life was thought of by co-founder Dr. Allison “Annie” Rosen when she was experiencing fatigue after chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer. Annie was watching television one day and decided to follow along with a Richard Simmons exercise routine. She did what she could of the class and found that she felt much less fatigued the next day. She also noticed that while she couldn’t lift her arms or do some of the other moves because she had just had surgery; just swaying to the music helped her. She searched for research into the role of exercise in cancer recovery. She was surprised to find that research showed how important aerobic exercise was for survivorship. She asked her friend, videographer Jan Albert, for help in making a video with an exercise program suitable for cancer patients. Jan then asked me to get involved, as I am an exercise physiologist, somatic movement therapist, and dance educator. My mother had just passed away from colon cancer, so I wanted to give back to others dealing with this awful disease.
Jan and I worked together to find suitable music that would be sensitive but uplifting and asked colleagues Karen Eubanks and Bonnie McGlynn DeLuca to share their ideas too. I choreographed nine different dances that were carefully sequenced so women could warm-up gradually and select what felt best to do throughout the dance workout. The class teaches the concept of somatic education, which refers to the body-mind connection. This means really listening to every feeling, stretch, and sensation in your body, and doing just a little less than where it hurts. This allows you to keep moving, get the blood circulating, and the muscles and joints moving. Positive exercise experiences, pain-free, and fun, allow you to get excited about exercise. We didn’t have the funds initially to do the DVD, so I took the program to hospitals and organizations that would be interested in providing these classes for their patients. We partnered with SHARE Cancer Support, Gilda’s Club, and the Comprehensive Breast Center (former Roosevelt Hospital, now Mt. Sinai West) who also brought us to the Jewish Community Center. I began teaching free classes as a volunteer. The merit of the work resulted in a Komen Greater NYC Community Partner grant in 2011-2, which give us the money to start more classes. Gradually I raised the funds to complete the DVD.
We now have 15 teachers in the New York area and have expanded beyond just helping people through cancer. We have a large variety of classes both for cancer patients and survivors and also for those who have other diseases or who wish to avoid developing disease.
What are the benefits of exercise for breast cancer patients and survivors?
Research has shown that aerobic exercise counters the number one side-effect of cancer treatment – fatigue. With regular aerobic activity, you are creating a more efficient blood circulation for oxygen delivery and increasing your aerobic capacity by demanding the cells get more active. Aerobic exercise increases your breathing rate, engages your lungs, and gets you sweating. To sustain regular exercise, I knew we would have to do it in a way that keeps people motivated (not too rigorous which can be exhausting). Gentle aerobic activity is working within a range that doesn’t do damage to the body or go into anaerobic activity, where you don’t have enough oxygen to keep your cells supplied with energy. The exercises I designed also focus on reducing lymphedema and neuropathy. Continued aerobic exercise combined with strength training (we use Therabands) also helps to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence by helping to maintain muscle mass and supports bone health.
What are the biggest problems faced by breast cancer patients when it comes to movement?
Fatigue is common to everyone with cancer. For breast cancer, the removal of lymph nodes causes lymphedema in the arms and reduces the range of movement post-surgery. Since we started Moving For Life, we saw hospitals bring in machines that squeeze the ankles to push the lymph back to the heart. This simulates walking, as walking is the most important thing you can do to return the lymph to the heart. There isn’t typically an equivalent machine to help with lymph in the arms, and people don’t realize there are exercises they can do to return the lymph to the heart. Using my knowledge as an exercise physiologist and my training in somatic education, I thought of movements that would help drain this lymph. Patients can also have issues with neuropathy, which is a tingling sensation in the arms or legs caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy – I use gentle pressure to override these sensations. These exercises are described in our Guidebook to Safe Exercise in Cancer Recovery ($2).
Are there specific exercises that are better suited for breast cancer patients?
Yes, there are, and this is why we use some different movements than you would have in your typical aerobic exercise classes. We infuse careful routines to help patients with their side effects, such as pressing your foot into the floor to help with neuropathy. We also tell our students that we want them to follow as best as they can, but to change movements to feel good for their body. The pace and size of the movement can also be variable from individual to individual. The Moving For Life Certified Instructors are trained to assist in helping students pick the safest pacing and scale of their workout
Are there common questions you get asked by breast cancer patients or survivors?
Back in 1999, during the lectures that I created called “The Importance of Exercise in Cancer Recovery,” or during the exchange after classes, I often reassured people that it was a myth that you’re not supposed to move during cancer treatment. Now doctors are telling people to move during treatment phases, as research since 2006 has increasingly shown the value of exercise during recovery. To tackle other questions, I have developed a series of lectures on specific topics like the “Role of Exercise in Handling Depression”, “Strengthening the Immune System,” and “Establishing a Personalized Exercise Regimen.” Moving For Life provides free lectures once per month at Beth Israel Hospital on these topics thanks to the generous support of the Marisa Accocella Marchetto Foundation.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
My co-founder Jan always said what kept her inspired was seeing people come in sad and leave with smiles on their faces. I was also inspired by one statement made by a participant who attended a class where the studio had mirrors. She reported, “When I first came here, I hated looking at myself in the mirror, but now I’m happy to.” The success of Cook for Your Life is also one of my happy stories. Ann attended our classes and she has told me that it was partly the energy she got back from doing the classes which inspired her to help people by setting up Cook for Your Life.
What do you recommend for patients and survivors who may be too unwell to attend your class or those who live far away?
We are trying to expand to neighborhoods outside New York, but this is one of the reasons we created the DVD, which we mail all around the world. We also stream classes online so people can follow along at home.
To learn more, visit https://movingforlife.org/