On September 15 the Steps to Wellness celebrated its fifth anniversary at the UVM Medical Center. The rehabilitation program offered to cancer survivors through the UVM Cancer Center has evaluated more than 700 patients since its launch in 2011.  Research data collected during this time demonstrates participants experience many benefits, including increased physical fitness and decreased stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

Over the course of 12 weeks, cancer survivors engage in a supervised group exercise program, during which there are educational opportunities provided for lifestyle management. The program is open to all survivors, regardless of their type of cancer or time since diagnosis. The supervised gym program is offered free of charge due to generous support and donations.

We sat down with staff and a patient to reflect on the program.

What is the most rewarding part of being involved in the Steps to Wellness program?

Christopher Lewis, clinical lead physical therapist: I find it very rewarding to be a part of each patient’s distinct rehabilitation experience. Some of our patients have never used a gym before while some of our patients have run 5Ks or half-marathons. Each patient starts the Steps to Wellness in a unique place both physically and mentally, and it’s very rewarding to witness and contribute to each patient’s individual improvement throughout their time in the program.

Britta MacAlpine, exercise trainer: I love working with people who may be intimated by the gym setting or who may be embarrassed because they aren’t in the physical condition they used to be in. It’s fun for me to see them become more confident and comfortable in their time here. Post-testing at the end can also be fun for me, when the participants get to see their progress and the rewards of their persistence in the program.

Karen Cutler, patient: All of the staff are supportive, knowledgeable, and friendly. The exercise trainers are the face of the program. They are very good at getting you to do “just a little more” than you think you can do, and with such wonderful smiles. They will even do the exercises with you, if you are feeling self-conscious. The gym space is bright and friendly, too – not at all intimidating.

What are the benefits of the group exercise format?

Christopher Lewis, clinical lead physical therapist: Many patients begin the program with anxiety about what they can and can’t do after undergoing cancer treatment, and I think being part of a group that is usually going through a similar experience helps to decrease this anxiety.

Rebecca Reynolds, exercise trainer: It really is the more the merrier. There is a tangible feeling of camaraderie that happens within the groups. The feeling of being a part of something and that they are not alone is invaluable. There is a sense of accountability that will keep participants coming and wanting to come. The program allows participants to connect with other survivors to share experiences.

How has STW been beneficial both during and after the program?

Karen Cutler, patient: I learned how important exercise is to both my physical and mental wellbeing. I had always been active, but had been doing less and less as middle age crept up on me. The cancer diagnosis woke me up to the state of my physical health. I had seen the STW brochures, and heard about the program from various medical people, but figured I didn’t need help to regain my strength and endurance It was just a matter of getting back to hiking, biking and skiing, right? Wrong. After several months of little to no progress, one of my doctors suggested that I try Steps to Wellness, and this time I listened.

My class was during the dark winter months. No matter how reluctantly I went out into the cold and dark for class, I always came home happy and warm. By the end of the twelve weeks, I was stronger, more flexible, and fitter than I had been for a few years. I just plain felt better – happy to be “in my skin” again. I have resumed the activities I used to enjoy, and have even taken up a new sport.

And finally, I learned to forgive my lapses.  Even if my exercise log has big gaps (because I didn’t prioritize activity, or life got in the way), I don’t give up anymore. The most important thing is to just get moving again. Period.

What would you say to cancer survivors who may be thinking about joining the program?

Christopher Lewis, clinical lead physical therapist: I would emphasize the potential to benefit from the program not just from a physical aspect, but socially and emotionally as well. Our exercise trainers are great at helping participants progress at their own speed, and we also offer educational sessions such as nutrition, weight management, and mindfulness that can help participants make positive lifestyle changes.

Rebecca Reynolds, exercise trainer: The Steps to Wellness gym is the best place to start an exercise program. I believe the trainers/environment/gym as a whole is very inviting, comfortable, safe, and believe it or not, fun. Everything can be modified depending on the individual’s needs. It really is a program anyone can do. It just takes one step at a time.

Britta MacAlpine, exercise trainer: It’s a really great and truly non-judgmental place to start exercising. Walking into a gym can be scary, but I think the environment here helps people feel comfortable from the start. It’s pretty neat to have a facility that helps people feel that comfortable and confident as they begin adding exercise into their life again or for the first time.

Learn more about Steps to Wellness at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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