Your Health

Pilates: A friend in cancer recovery

courtesy of Kim Gladfelter
For those battling cancer, Pilates can help patients regain strength and mobility, while also increasing energy.

As a physical therapist and wellness professional, I have always been aware of the vast health benefits of Pilates. Recently, however, my own personal experience has opened my eyes to the integral role this exercise form can play in life’s greatest challenges.

Over the past few months, my husband has undergone various stages of cancer treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. During this time, I have witnessed firsthand how a Pilates-based exercise program can ease and expedite the cancer recovery process.

When navigating the path of cancer recovery, one faces unique hurdles and challenges. Cancer patients often battle muscle weakness, decreased mobility/flexibility, stress and fatigue all at once. Regaining strength and range of motion, as well as increasing energy levels and reducing stress, becomes imperative to promote a positive healing process. Those undergoing cancer rehabilitation, therefore, must find a way to accomplish all of these health goals simultaneously. The Pilates principles of centering, control, flow of movement, breathing and concentration help cancer patients address each of these recovery needs.

Regaining strength is critical after suffering through difficult cancer treatments. Patients can start the process by learning the Pilates technique of centering. With a focus on the core, simple exercises that engage the abdominal and back muscles promote good posture and stability, allowing for improved strength in everyday functional movement.

Control is another important principle at the heart of a Pilates program. Cancer often causes a reluctance to move an area due to the guarding effects of surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. A Pilates approach will help lessen the apprehension and improve control of the movement process.

Pilates also promotes flow of movement. For patients recovering from cancer, this concept has the benefit of moving lymph fluids. Without fluid movement, the lymph may build up and cause lymphedema, a condition caused by an inability to properly drain fluid – a particularly significant risk after breast cancer surgery. Following cancer treatment, it is important to gently increase range of motion and flexibility in areas affected by joint and muscle stiffness. A Pilates-based recovery program effectively addresses the need.

Deep breathing, a fundamental part of Pilates exercise, plays an important role in cancer recovery as well. Breathing from the core allows more oxygen to enter the lungs, which helps the healing process. Another critical benefit of deep breathing is that it encourages relaxation and reduces stress. Along these lines, a degree of concentration is needed in Pilates to engage and recruit proper muscles. Patients who face aggressive treatment plans benefit from developing this high level of focus, as it deepens the mind/body connection to promote a calm, positive spirit.

Pilates principles not only improve everyday health, but also help as we face significant life obstacles – and that includes the unique challenges of cancer recovery. Building strength, improving mobility, regaining energy, relaxing and reducing stress are all goals during cancer therapy. Pilates uniquely addresses each of these aspects.

If you or someone important in your life is undergoing cancer treatment, a well-integrated Pilates program will do wonders to ease the rehabilitation process and lift the spirits.

Kim Gladfelter is a physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy and Wellness in Los Altos. For more information, call 947-8500 or visit

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