Published: Aug. 21, 2006
Updated: Mar. 9, 2011
For Stephanie Wiseman, an advertising copywriter in Raleigh, the call to action came two years ago with news of her mother’s late-stage cancer.
“When someone in your life gets sick, that puts your own health and mortality in perspective. I was reaching my mid-30s and starting to feel the consequences of a sedentary life,” she recalls.
“I’d kneel down on the floor to help my kids with a school project and find that getting back up was a challenge -- I could feel my bones creaking. Walking up two or three flights of stairs left me breathless. I realized I hadn’t been doing much to stay physically fit.”
She knew she couldn’t change her mother’s condition but was driven to do something positive for herself and others. “I needed a way to work through the helplessness that I felt,” she says.
She decided to jumpstart her physical activity by training for a race. Along the way, she raised over a thousand dollars for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “I couldn’t save my mom’s life, but I could make a difference for someone else with cancer,” Wiseman says.
She also set in motion healthy habits she maintains today. “These days I manage two-and-a-half-mile walk/runs about three times a week -- I’d like to do more, but I do what I can. I owe it to my kids to have a life that is more healthy and fit.”
Pearlene Yancey, administrative assistant to Kevin Sowers, the chief executive officer of Duke University Hospital, had already been making some significant lifestyle changes when Sowers suggested they walk together in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Triangle Race for the Cure in June 2006.
After being diagnosed with diabetes and finding a lump in her breast earlier this year, Yancey was getting serious about her health.
The lump in her breast turned out to be a benign cyst, “which was a blessing, but it was a big scare,” she recounts. “I’d really started to look at my life and what having cancer would mean for me and my family.” The diabetes, however, was all too real.
“I read everything I could about diabetes," she says. "I started looking at food labels, gauging what I eat and how I eat. Next I had to start getting more physical, because I really enjoy my couch! I had to give up my couch and get out and walk.”
The Race for the Cure course was five kilometers long, a little over three miles, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to tackle that distance yet, but Sowers’s encouragement helped Yancey to push herself.
“I’ve worked with Kevin for 20 years in different capacities," Yancey says. "He has really been my mentor. He said, ‘I’m going to do it with you, and you’re going to get through it.’ When I got there that morning and saw all the breast cancer survivors in their pink shirts, I thought to myself, if they can finish this race, I can finish it. The race started, and Kevin walked right along with me and talked me through it.
“As we got to the end, he said, ‘Do you realize you’ve done this in an hour?’ I topped my own best -- a mile used to take me 35 minutes. I was jumping around, I was so excited. This was like a million dollars to me!”
Now walking is part of Yancey’s routine. “I have been feeling fantastic. Most days I can get out and walk the trail near my house, or I get on the treadmill or exercise bike on really hot days. At 51 years old, there are a lot of things I can do!”
Like all journeys, these began with a single step. Kevin Speer, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon affiliated with Duke Raleigh Hospital, says that first step is crucial.
“Forget for a moment all the recommendations about exercise,” he advises those who want to get active but may be too intimidated to begin.
“First try to go from nothing to something, which is the hardest thing to do. Don’t worry about whether it’s half an hour, an hour -- for now, see if you can walk around the block. Any exercise is better than no exercise.”
Speer says walking is a safe activity for most people. “If you’re generally healthy, you can start a walking program on your own, though I’d recommend a personal trainer for one or two sessions to learn good stretching and strengthening techniques. Warming up is important -- and it’s simple, though not intuitive. A trainer can help you learn the nuances.”
For those with conditions like back pain or arthritis, Speer suggests consulting a physical therapist. “Certain activities may aggravate the problem. You need someone to create a program that takes your condition into account.”
For recurring pain, perhaps from a past injury, he recommends an orthopaedic surgeon. “It may be time to become a patient. With pain issues, you need a diagnosis and options for getting better. Surgery is only one option, usually a last resort.”
Here are some more suggestions Speer offers for a successful walking program:
An important thing to remember, says Speer, is that exercise should make you feel good. If it doesn’t, “See a doctor to sort out why. Exercise promotes strength and flexibility -- it helps moderate those aches and pains that come with age. It gives you more vigor, more stamina, an improved quality of life. Your body just feels better when it’s more active.”
The body functions better, too. Duke researchers have concluded from the recent trial STRRIDE (Studies of a Targeted Risk Reduction Intervention through Defined Exercise) that many of the negative effects of physical inactivity can be reversed by a similar period of moderate exercise.
Just as important, the trial participants who exhibited the greatest decline in physical status during inactivity benefited the most from exercise training.
“The good news is that a small amount of physical activity can make a big difference in reducing the risks for developing such conditions as heart disease, stroke, or diabetes,” says Jennifer Robbins, an exercise physiologist at Duke.
“Our findings demonstrate that while the cost of choosing a sedentary lifestyle can be high, switching to an active way of life can be beneficial at any time.”
Why not do it now? “It’s those little steps that count the most,” emphasizes Speer.
“Start small -- you need achievable goals. Just setting aside some time to exercise is a good initial goal. Remember, anything is better than nothing! Do something. Maybe, just maybe, your perspective changes and you get into a rhythm of activity. Then you’ve got something to build on.”