Moving is good for us, even with a serious diagnosis

Founders of The Exercise Clinic, Emily Curtis and Chris Cottrell, share a passion for exercise and its health benefits for people who are living with cancer.

Chris was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in 2011. Quite early on he was encouraged to start a structured exercise programme, at which point his PSA progression slowed enough for him not to require further treatment for the next two years.

He has continued to exercise and firmly believes that structured resistance training and cardiovascular exercise has had a positive impact on the management of his disease and the side effects of treatment. He would go so far as to say that exercise has not only been life changing, but life saving as well.

Emily has been working as a clinical exercise specialist since gaining a BSc in Exercise and Sports Sciences from the University of Exeter, leading exercise training sessions for individuals diagnosed with cancer and cardiac disease.

The combination of Chris’ and Emily’s experience has given them a unique understanding of the challenges faced by people living with cancer and their families, and how exercise can be coached and monitored for maximum benefit.

Emily met Chris whilst working in a specialist cardiac rehabilitation centre, which was branching out to work with other clinical conditions, most significantly within cancer. They worked together for a period at the clinic and, and then set up the Exercise Clinic in 2016.

Because of Chris’s direct experience, they focused on prostate cancer. They wanted more people to have access to safe, effective exercise and long term holistic support that enables people to engage with safe, effective exercise over a long period of time. For all of us, what makes a real difference is challenging, or stressing, your body appropriately, over a long time. So it’s really a little bit, often and over a long period that makes a real difference with regard to health outcomes.

They became involved in a research project with the Royal Marsden which then led on to them running their own pilot with the hospital.

They were gathering evidence from participants as to what elements they found engaging, what really helped them. Prostate cancer was the main route of referral, but many of the people they saw had multiple clinical conditions: arthritis, hypertension, and cardiac issues as well.

Everyone reported how much more energetic it made them feel, how it improved their mood, how well they’re moving, their ability to function, to do daily tasks. The programme was highly praised by participants, who valued the virtual delivery, behavioural support and peer support elements. Self-reported improvements in physical, psychological and social wellbeing were substantiated by preserved scores in quality of life, wellbeing, activity levels, waist circumference and physical performance.

For Chris, exercise has become what he regards as being a vital component to his cancer treatment. Exercise helps him to focus in terms of what he can do to help himself because he knows it is helping. He is less focused on his next blood test or the next result of a scan, which helps him both physically and mentally.

The first thing Emily stresses is the importance of long term engagement: enjoying it and finding ways that are helpful for you to adhere to some form of exercise regime is important. For some people that might be doing more walking and keeping track. For others, it might be gardening with friends, or going to the gym and having a more structured approach. Finding something that you enjoy is really important, and some way to either track or monitor that or work with others to help you keep that going.

They encourage people to do up to 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a week and try and do some strength exercise on at least two days a week which is consistent with the national guidelines.

When people are a bit older there might be some other goals that they have in mind, it may be more about moving well through good range, good mobility, and testing your balance and coordination in certain positions.

They have experience of working with people with quite extensive disease that might be within their bones or spine, so they’re very careful around things like impact and certain extreme motions  like flexing and extension of the spine, It is about educating people about those things so that they feel empowered to know or can start to identify where their right level is for exercise.

All exercise was originally delivered face to face until COVID came along, and they moved online. They’ve largely stayed online because they found that you can reach a greater number of people who don’t have to pay to get to the gym or to get to the fitness centre or the local village hall, making it more convenient for them. The whole Marsden programme over the last three years was entirely online.

It means there really is no physical barrier, providing you can use a computer or a laptop, or even a mobile phone (though a larger screen is better, because you can see better, and they can see you). You don’t need to spend lots of money on equipment, people join with either no or minimum equipment.

They found that once people get through the door, their fears and inhibitions just disappear virtually immediately. And at the end of the first session they say how valuable it was, and how they are looking forward to coming back next week.

When the pilot project with the Royal Marsden came to an end, a lot of people wanted to carry on. So they set up Muscles Count, group exercise sessions that they run Monday and Friday afternoons, and Emily produces a video every week for people to access online.

Chris has been working with Emily as a client for the best part of 10 years, as have others. As he says, once people realise the importance and see the benefit that they’re getting from this, they’re reluctant to give it up, because it’s doing them so much good, both physically and mentally.

They are very open to having an initial conversation if people want to talk things through and just want a bit of advice. Get in touch by email or phone.

The Exercise Clinic Ltd – https://theexerciseclinic.co.uk/

Tel: 07437 518907   Email: emily@theexerciseclinic.co.uk

This article is an extract from a conversation we had with Chris and Emily. The full recording and edited transcript has been sent to members of the My Future Care Community. For further information on how to join the Community email info@mycarematters.org.