‘Taking Steps’ towards health, wellbeing … and happiness
Jane Bissell takes some ‘Healthy Steps’ with Auckland Lymphoedema Therapist Michele Urlich
Belly dancing? Donning top hats and dancing canes? Swaying to the Hawaiian hula? It’s all part of an exercise programme that is making a real difference in the lives of cancer survivors and those living with chronic medical conditions. It’s affordable, has proven benefits and above all, it’s a lot of fun.
It’s The Lebed Method (also known as Healthy Steps) and Auckland Lymphoedema Specialist Michele Urlich is conducting programmes at the Auckland Cancer Society. The 6-week courses (one session per week – see Michele’s web page for programme schedules) are subsidised by the Cancer Society and attendance is limited to those who have had a cancer diagnosis. Participants pay $30 in advance ($5 per session) to enjoy an hour (with three breaks for water) of gentle to moderate exercises to music.
Healthy-Steps - Moving you to better health with the Lebed Method was designed by American cancer survivor and professional dancer Sherry Lebed Davis together with her brothers physicians/surgeons Marc Lebed M.D and Joel Lebed M.D. after their mother Rita was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979. They developed the exercise programme to help their mother regain her mobility – and her spirit.
The creative and therapeutic exercise programme helped their mother heal, physically and emotionally. When Sherry was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she found the exercises restored her health and quality of life too. She developed Lymphoedema as a result of her surgery and, with one of her brothers, went on to develop a range of new therapeutic exercises to decrease swelling in the affected area.
The programme is committed to improving the physical and emotional well-being of cancer survivors, including those with Lymphoedema, as well as adults and children suffering from other chronic illnesses. The overall goal is to elevate the quality of life through therapeutic dance and movement ... and to have lots of fun in the process. You can watch Sherry talking about and demonstrating her programme on YouTube.
Michele says there are many clinical reasons why Healthy Steps should be available to all cancer survivors and those with chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia who wish to increase their longevity and improve quality of life. “The programme combines sound physical therapy practice with the freeing aspects of graceful movement, incorporating music, positive reinforcement from a group, and empowerment through information and education,” says Michele. “It’s a potent package that heals the body, mind and spirit. There are many benefits including reduction of pain, an increased range of motion, increased energy, released frozen shoulders, reduced depression, assistance in structural rebalancing, promotion of positive self-image and joy, stimulation of the lymphatic immune system, reduction and/or deterrence of Lymphoedema, weight stabilisation, increased longevity, and re-establishment of a sense of beauty and femininity.”
Not to mention the fun, fellowship and sharing that each session offers. Participants form friendships over the six weeks, compare experiences, share stories and enjoy the company of others who know how life with chronic or serious illness can be.
And it was obvious plenty of fun was in store too. An array of colourful ‘ accessories’ were laid out for use in the session: small coloured balls, Hawaiian leis, coin belts for belly dancing and glittery Top Hats, just to name a few …
I was invited to attend Week Three of the six week course of Healthy Steps. All of the participants were women with ages ranging from 40s through to late 60s. Some were undergoing cancer treatments, a few wore compression garments for lymphoedema and all were there to reap the exercise benefits. The women were meeting up again for only the third time but there was a buzz of conversation and laughter as they greeted each other like old friends.
Participants learn about lymphoedema and the lymphatic system in Week One and understand how cancer treatments and chronic illness can affect this vital and often misunderstood system of the body. Each session begins with breathing and blowing exercises to encourage diaphragmatic breathing. While everyone sat in their chairs, blowing against little hand held windmills, Michele spoke of the benefits to be gained from deep and full breathing, for example, improving relaxation and sleep, heightening mental acuity, and reducing pain and anxiety. Shallow breathing, or taking breaths from higher in the chest, can be stressful for the body and may worsen lymphoedema. “Lie down at home and place a wheat bag – or the cat – on your belly and watch it going up and down – then you can see you’re taking deep breaths from your diaphragm, in through the nose and out through the mouth,” said Michele.
When everyone was feeling well and truly ‘oxygenated’, the music went on and it was all go! To the beat of We are Family Michele took the class through a series of warm-up exercises designed to improve mobility of the upper body by focusing on the head, neck and shoulders. The movements were similar to those incorporated in the popular YWCA Encore Programme (available only to women who have experienced breast cancer) but given an entertaining and fun ‘spin’, for example, stretching forward was ‘Reaching into the cupboard’ for ‘Brandy!’ as one woman called out. Another exercise with arms raised over the head was ‘lifting and carrying a tray’ and the final was a front movement with arms outstretched called ‘Hugging a tree.’
The next set of exercises made use of small rubber balls which were used to work the lower part of the body, specifically legs, knees and feet. These exercises were done sitting down using the hand held pressure of the ball as gentle resistance against muscles and joints. Participants then stood to form two lines opposite each other and threw the balls back and forth, moves designed to encourage laughter, breathing and coordination.
It was time to get seriously into the groove with some Saturday Night Fever so the women found their space on the floor as Michele guided them through a series of moves in time to the disco beat, the focus on arms, hips, a bit of John Travolta and a lot of jolly good fun.
When Putting on the Ritz went on the music box, the now very enlivened group took up glittery top hats and short plastic poles and began ‘paddling’ their way across the dance floor with kayak-like moves, progressing to raising the poles over the head. This set of exercises extended to ‘grabbing what you want in your life and pulling it in’ with wide, sweeping arm movements, concluding with dog paddling and breast stroke, excellent work outs for the hands, wrists and fingers – a total stimulation for the lymphatic system.
No doubt visitors to the Cancer Society foyer began to wonder what all the whooping, clapping, and jingling was about when the women donned their coin belts for a good belly dancing session to some lively music – hips swaying, arms sweeping over heads, feet stepping to the irresistible beat with plenty of laughing and big smiles.
After the pace of belly dancing, things took on a slower groove with a little Hawaiian hula dancing. Wearing colourful leis, the women enjoyed some ‘free form’ dance movement, focusing on deep breathing and arm and hand stretching, leading into the warm down session where participants sat down for a well earned rest to gentle music. Lights turned down, Michele spoke softly, taking the ladies through a mini-relaxation time, cooling down muscles with more stretches of arms, legs, fingers and toes, head and neck movements and shoulder shrugs, ending with ‘a good wriggle and shake’, a short massage of face, neck, and armpits, all combined with deep breathing from the diaphragm.
It was an hour of good exercise and great fun and the benefits could be seen on the faces of those attending: smiles all round and everyone reported heightened energy levels and a feeling of happiness and joy.
Attending the entire six-week programme offers maximum benefit but people are welcome to join a course at any stage to experience the programme and see if it is right for them. One woman attending for the first time said she would definitely return the following week. She confessed to not being very coordinated when it came to moving about but said, ‘… it’s good to be reminded about what we should do and in fact what we are able to do. It’s lovely to see all the different ages here too.’
Healthy Steps is appropriate for people of all ages because participants are encouraged to give the movements a go but only to an extent they feel able to manage and certainly there is no pressure to try exercises that are too difficult. Everyone participates to their comfort level.
Some of the women just enjoy being in the company of others who ‘know how it is’ and can understand. ‘I’ve had melanoma,’ said one, ‘and it’s good to have an exercise programme available for all cancers.’ Another woman who had been diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer said the weekly session provided her with an opportunity to meet others who had shared a similar experience. ‘It can be hard to find women who share my situation,’ she said. ‘It gets lonely so the session provides us with an opportunity to meet, offer each other some support, exchange information and of course have a whole lot of fun.’
One woman said the Healthy Steps exercises gave her arthritis ‘a good stretch’ and another said, ‘It’s wonderful. Even if you can’t do everything, it’s the movement that energises you. And above all, it’s fun.’
Healthy Steps is making a difference for many who have experienced serious illness or who live with chronic medical conditions. Feedback includes increased mobility and energy levels, better sleep, reduction of pain and stress levels, improved quality of life and a heightened sense of well-being but above all, Healthy Steps is bringing back a sense of joy, happiness and hope to lives that have been impacted by a health crisis. As one older woman said, ‘I come here and I laugh. My husband drops me off and when he picks me up afterwards he asks, ‘Did you laugh?’ and I say ‘Yes! Lots!’
Michele says that her current class members are keen to register for the next six week block commencing 4th February 2012. ‘There are always people who have to drop out due to health complications or treatment regimes, so there will be plenty of `spaces` available.’ The classes are booked at Domain Lodge through the entire year finishing 8th December 2012.
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