Recovering From a Serious Illness
By KJ Fields
Getting active after a serious illness or injury can contribute to a speedy recovery.
When Group Health member Bonnie L. Foss had open heart surgery and cancer treatment in the same year, she became weak and unable to do normal everyday activities. But within six days of surgery, she started exercising by walking around the house. "I would have to stop and sit down, but I kept at it. Over time, I added two stair steps, then later a few more. Day by day, I built my strength back," says Foss.
Exercise is almost always part of a prescription for recovery from a serious illness or major injury. Studies have shown its many health benefits. It can speed recovery and help with mood.
But every condition is unique. That's why Group Health Physicians cardiologist Art Resnick, MD, says it's important to consult your doctor first. "Patients should bring a list of specific questions to their follow-up appointments and get clear feedback on which activities are appropriate for them."
"Always be sure to work at a level that doesn't aggravate your symptoms," says Group Health physical therapist Julea Edwards. "A good rule of thumb is to work slightly beyond your comfort zone if you want to see improvements, but not so hard that you're hurting."
If you experience shortness of breath, dizziness, excessive or irregular heart rate, nausea, chest pain, or are perspiring profusely, it's time to stop and call your doctor.
Mind over matter. If your illness or injury has kept you inactive for weeks, you will likely have significant muscle atrophy and generalized fatigue, which can make it difficult to get motivated. Psychological challenges like depression, feeling helpless from reduced independence, a fear of re-injury or re-occurrence, and a decrease in social interaction are other roadblocks.
Making exercise fun will help you get started and keep going. Foss puts a small portable bike in front of the television and pedals while watching her favorite shows. Some people enjoy walking with a friend, working with a trainer, or taking a class. "Exercise classes offer camaraderie and social components that can help perk you up emotionally and physically," says Edwards.
Ready, set, reality check. The shape you were in prior to serious illness or injury will affect how much exercise you can take on during recovery. For example, Dr. Resnick says an 85-year-old who could barely walk across the room before a minor heart attack will need to start more slowly than a 45-year-old who had more severe heart attack but previously ran marathons.
Despite the urge to try to quickly get back into shape, slow and steady progression will prevent muscle strain and injury, and help you achieve a fitness level you can sustain for life.
"It matters more what you're doing six months from now than if you can return to your original fitness level in six days or even six weeks," explains Dr. Resnick.
Accept your current limitations, but maintain a consistent exercise program to improve over time. And once you get started, if something interferes with your routine, don't let it derail you. Make a conscious decision to dive back into your fitness regimen at the first opportunity.
Resources to Help You Get Moving
After a serious illness, gradual exercise can make you feel better and stronger. To help you on the road to recovery, Group Health offers discounts on fitness center memberships. For information, call GlobalFit™ toll-free at 1-800-294-1500 or visit globalfit.com.
Seniors in Group Health's Clear Care HMO Medicare Advantage plans can participate in SilverSneakers® fitness classes offered at certain health clubs.