Community gyms helping in cancer treatment

Graphical user interface, textIn October of 2020, Jess Bailey should have been preparing to return to her grade 2 classroom after nearly three months of remote teaching.

Instead, the 27-year-old faced the prospect of surgery followed by multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Like 20,000 other people each year in Australia, Ms Bailey had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

She recalls that it all started with a whirlwind life-upending fortnight of tests and surgery to remove all of her lymph nodes.

“It all happened so quickly there wasn’t a lot of time to process everything,” she said.

“It was straight into surgery, straight into chemo, straight into radiation.”

The surgery came with a six-week rehabilitation period where she could not exercise.

But with the encouragement of her doctors, Ms Bailey continued to go to group fitness classes throughout her treatment.

“I had six weeks off with each surgery and it just killed me…I loved the gym and it was my escape,” she said, attributing “the biggest difference” to the gym.

“Seeing other people that I know go through chemo, they just have not coped as well with the side effects,” she said.

“I think having the routine and having the determination and having the community at the gym made a really big difference.”

Ms Bailey’s doctors are not alone in encouraging the continuation of fitness and activity, throughout cancer treatment.

In 2018, the Australian Cancer Council called for every cancer patient to be prescribed exercise as part of their treatment plan.

The call was echoed by organisations worldwide and supported by studies which show that exercise during treatment leads to lower risk of cancer recurrence or mortality.

Studies also show that cancer patients who exercise regularly experience fewer and less extreme side effects from treatment.

Despite this, only 1 in 10 patients are meeting the exercise guidelines.

Ms Bailey added that her ability to remain fit and active even surprised her doctors.

“Every time I went into the Austin for chemo they would be amazed at what I looked like and what I was doing and that I was so well compared to everyone else,” she said.

Experts suggest joining a group exercise program is a good way to encourage activity in patients.

Group settings can provide encouragement and – as Ms Bailey can attest to – a sense of community.

Community gyms are playing their part for members going through cancer treatment. Photo: Diamond Creek Community Centre Facebook (PAUL JOHNSTONE)

Fitness trainer John Cooper is passionate about the benefits of community-based gym programs.

“Community based gyms offer more than just a regular gym membership,” he said.

“For a lot of members, they are a home away from home, a positive outlet and a place they can feel welcome and comfortable.”

Mr Cooper is a trainer at the Diamond Creek Community Centre (the same centre Ms Bailey attends) and the fitness instructor says his hope is to create a warm environment that takes care of its members.

The classes here often run at maximum capacity to the soundtrack of high-energy music and laughter.

Mr Cooper is proud of the environment the centre has created and loves seeing people engage in his group classes.

“Training in a group can keep everyone accountable and keep everyone working at a high level,” he explains.

“People are less likely to quit or give up when their friends are there encouraging and offering support.”

“I think having the routine and having the determination and having the community at the gym made a really big difference.”

— teacher Jess Bailey on exercising during cancer treatment

Mr Cooper’s classes have supported people like Jess Bailey through various medical treatments.

A look at the centre’s Facebook profile highlights members who have trained there while battling a wide range of diseases.

Each of them credits the centre for helping them through.

He feels strongly about the crucial role of exercise in a healthy lifestyle and believes that group classes are the best way to engage in it.

“Training in a group offers the best social environment – not only are you training for health and fitness benefits but your building great friendships, great self-esteem and confidence, and makes exercising fun and enjoyable especially when you’re having a laugh,” he said.

“Members feel less intimidated training here (because) it helps build confidence and self esteem especially with the friendly encouraging staff that work there.”

Mr Cooper adds that the centre is investigating ways to add more specific support to help those dealing with cancer.

“Going forward, the gym is looking at building rapport with many cancer foundations and centres, and building solid relationships with local doctors and clinics within the community so patients can safely and effectively train at the gym to help with their cancer treatment via the medical practitioner’s advice and guidance,” he said.

Ms Bailey is now cancer free, and back in the classroom full time.

She recently completed a half-marathon.

And, of course, she can still be found at the Diamond Creek Community Centre for regular classes most days of the week.