How to manage fitness at cancer treatment centers

Patients seeking treatment at cancer facilities need a different fitness experience. They should have access to opportunities for movement and wellness customized to their care.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “Being physically active after a cancer diagnosis is linked to better cancer-specific outcomes for several cancer types.”

“Just as important as the physical aspect is the mental aspect,” says Alyssa Joel, a clinical integration coordinator at EXOS. “It gives patients a sense of control and feeling of empowerment. They can say, ‘This is what I'm going through, and I can’t help it, but what I can do is go to the gym today and work out.’”

To best serve people battling cancer, fitness programming at centers should differ from that of local gyms and even from the average medical fitness facility. Learn how to create a fitness center and program tailored to cancer patients' unique needs.

1. Meet patients where they are.

Workouts and exercises for cancer patients will likely look different for each person and vary by day, depending on how a patient feels. Typical fitness facilities, gyms, and studios encourage members to meet strength and cardio goals through generalized programs. Fitness at cancer centers must be tailored more to the patient’s journey, which may not always have forward momentum.

“You have to be realistic about the type of goals you're setting for that person and make sure that, no matter what, at the end of the day, it’s something positive,” says Amanda Radochonski, senior director of business and operations at EXOS. “Exercise and fitness should never feel defeating for anybody, let alone someone who’s already up against some challenges for themselves.”

Through diligent communication with the cancer center (and mindfulness of HIPAA restrictions), coaches and other staff should know the details of each patient’s cancer treatments and side effects.

To best serve people battling cancer, fitness programming at centers should differ from that of local gyms and even from the average medical fitness facility.

2. Employ the right staff.

Finding empathetic, patient employees is critical. That can start with training, such as hiring fitness experts with cancer exercise certifications. “If you haven’t been through treatment, it’s hard to say you can understand what it’s like,” Joel says. “But you can understand the ups and downs — and the challenges that they have — address those up front, and assure the person that you can help them navigate those things.”

Staff members should also be able to anticipate and quickly adjust to a patient’s needs. “You might have something planned, but that day might be a bad day for that patient,” Radochonski says. “You need to pivot completely, and you might just sit there and talk.”

3. Establish a continuum of care.

The anticipation and understanding of a patient’s experience is part of the benefit of having a comprehensive array of health and wellness services, and seamless communication between fitness staff and health care providers. This continuum of care helps patients foster long-term relationships with the cancer center and ultimately boosts their confidence and trust through their treatment and beyond.

“When people can get all of their treatment — from exercise to chemotherapy in one centralized location — they feel a lot more comfortable,” says Joel. “They have a treatment headquarters, where they know everyone’s on the same page.”

4. Build a community support system.

The relationship-building benefits of a cancer center’s fitness facility also work between patients. Both Joel and Radochonski are proponents of group training for any population but especially for people with cancer.

“The sense of community when it comes to fitness and wellness is really what keeps people engaged long term,” says Radochonski. “It’s important to have that built-in support system of people with whom you’ve really gone through some major hardships with and then come out on the other end.”

Joel also extols the value of camaraderie between patients who are at different stages. “Those are people who understand better than anyone because they're undergoing treatment,” she says. “As a coach, you'll never be able to understand to that extent.”

Facility offerings should transcend the idea of fitness being solely about movement.

5. Create the right environment.

Building a sense of community among patients is key to creating a comfortable, welcoming fitness environment. “If you’re undergoing treatment, you don't want to be working out next to someone who's completely healthy and doing a really hard workout,” says Joel. “It’s about having an inviting space and not an intimidating facility with a ton of equipment and fancy, scary-looking machines.”

Gearing fitness offerings toward cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment, or who are in recovery, also enhances safety. When you’re catering to people with depleted immune systems, you probably don’t want to invite the public to share the space.

6. Don’t forget about the caregivers.

The facility should also offer a program for caregivers. Doing so will provide patients and their caregivers an opportunity to foster their relationships beyond day-to-day medical interactions, creating an outlet for other discussion and interaction. It will also allow caregivers to draw support from each other and manage their own health and wellness. “It’s hard to take care of yourself if you're constantly taking care of somebody else,” says Joel. “But at the same time, you'll be able to take care of that person better if you’re taking care of yourself.” Learn how Cancer Treatment Centers of America implemented a program to support their caregivers.

7. Take a mind-body approach.

Facility offerings should transcend the idea of fitness being solely about movement. “EXOS takes a holistic approach to fitness and wellness,” Radochonski says. “It's all about mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery. Those four pillars are integrated into everything we're doing on a daily basis with an individual.”

This methodology can help cancer patients address all aspects of wellness, from sleep hygiene to managing stress. Radochonski says, “Providing tools and solutions to help people through some of those problems is crucial.”

8. Encourage patients to share lessons learned.

Many times, you may be providing a patient’s first experience with a customized fitness program. That means that despite the reason behind their initial engagement, they’re learning the benefits of living a healthier lifestyle for the first time.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about 4 in 10 cancer cases can be prevented through healthy living. When you encourage patients to share their journey and what they’ve learned, you may be helping their friends and families live longer, healthier lives. And you're helping patients build a foundation for a healthier life that can benefit them both during their cancer journey and in remission.

Interested in bringing a fitness center to your cancer treatment center? Find out how EXOS can help

About the Author

Jennifer Chesak

Jennifer Chesak’s health, fitness, and adventure journalism has appeared in Healthline, Prevention, Runner’s World, SheKnows, and Field & Stream online, to name a few. She earned her master's degree in journalism from Northwestern. She’s also a distance runner and avid yogi.

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