“It’s important for cancer survivors to get strong,” says Starr Cleary, cancer exercise specialist, Pilates instructor, and Cinco Vidas expert, “but strong progressively. We don’t want to see them regress or have setbacks.”
Starr has been teaching her own special form of Pilates to cancer survivors for the last ten years. Called the “Starr Power Pilates Program,” it helps survivors regain strength and mobility in a progressive, gentle way.
“Most people have a tendency to move very quickly when they’re exercising. Pilates is about moving slowly, with control and precision. It places more emphasis on quality movements rather than quantity. If you perform three controlled arm/leg lifts beautifully, that’s going to get you stronger than moving the arm up and down really fast.”
Starr likens Pilates to weight training without weights, because you’re using your own natural resistance to strengthen and tone the muscles. But she’s careful not to call it exercise. “The word ‘exercise’ comes with a psychological block for many people. So I call it ‘power through movement.’ We want to concentrate on movement, not exercise.”
Why is developing muscle tone and strength so important? “The average person loses between 6–12% of lean muscle mass every decade as they get older. If you’ve been through cancer treatment or surgery, within six weeks your muscles begin to weaken and atrophy (lose muscle tone). The longer you go without working them, the mushier they get. Pilates helps you build muscle tone with gentle, controlled movements and very few repetitions-so you don’t go home sore-but you do build strength, increase mobility, and gain control of your body.”
Hundreds of people have already benefited from Starr’s programs. She starts by encouraging students establish a mind-body connection. “Diaphragmatic breathing helps people to relax, get the blood circulating, generate energy, and stimulate the healing process. Gradually, they tune into how they’re feeling, what their balance is like, where their flexibility may be limited, or their mobility constrained. Once they start to become aware of their bodies, their progress happens a lot more quickly, and they’re less likely to experience injury.”
The safety of Pilates is the reason why Starr advocates it cancer fighters and survivors. “A lot of patients are apprehensive coming into my class because they’re afraid they’re not going to be able to do what we do. But Pilates allows you to start at any fitness level. We can adapt the movements as we need for anyone’s level of fitness. Some patients start by doing movements in a seated position.”
You can find Starr’s classes by visiting her web site. If you’re not in the Modesto, CA area but want to take advantage of the gentle strengthening power of Pilates, she suggests checking first with your hospital and local wellness center for Pilates programs that cater to cancer survivors. If they don’t have one available, call your local gyms, but be sure the instructor has some experience with what Starr calls “adaptive Pilates,” or classes for special populations. Above all, if you’re experience pain during the class, or if the teacher doesn’t offer you modified movements for your condition, find another class.
“Pilates is not painful,” Starr says. “If the movements are fast, you’re not in a Pilates class! They should also have accessories available, such as straps, blocks, and the like.”
“The beauty of this,” Starr says, “is that people don’t realize the gains they’ve made until they’re trying to do something physical-like dry their backs off with a towel, tie their shoes, or bring their arms above their heads. My program isn’t just about getting stronger, it’s about being able to do what you want to do-and need to do-in your life. One guy even said his golf game improved by eight points because his back is stronger, and his torque is better!”
No matter what your goals are, the right Pilates class can help you feel whole again. As Starr says in her mission statement, “Take back your physical power, one muscle at a time.”
Developer of the Starr Power Pilates Program, Starr is now affiliated with the Lance Armstrong Triumph Fitness Program, and teaching 10-week sessions to cancer survivors on a regular basis. Check out Starr’s books and DVD at her web site.