Regaining Physical Resilience After Serious Illness

Barb Resnick HeadshotBarbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP
Sonya Ziporkin Gershowitz Chair in Gerontology
University of Maryland School of Nursing

I’ve been blogging here about my difficult recovery following months of cancer treatment. One thing I’ve learned: To fully recover, you must fight to regain your physical endurance and strength, also known as your physical resilience (see this earlier blog post about another important factor in your recovery, emotional resilience).

The advice I’m offering applies to you if you’re the one who’s experiencing the illness, and it’s also relevant if you’re a caregiver for someone living with a serious condition.

Getting Yourself Started

To regain your energy and strength, begin to resume daily activities as soon your healthcare team gives you the green light. Then, slowly but surely, you can increase the time you spend each day doing some form of physical activity. That can be easier said than done, especially when you’re coping with symptoms such as pain or fatigue. Here’s my advice: Start small and begin with the basics. As soon as you’re able, start bathing and dressing yourself. If these tasks are too challenging, talk with your healthcare provider and caregiver about small steps you can take to stay active given your own situation.

Walking is also a great way to recondition. I found during my own recovery that keeping up my usual routine, which involved getting up and exercising every morning, was helpful. Even when I needed to go to the hospital for intravenous hydration, I would consider that my morning walk. Over time, I was able to walk more and more, and I found that walking at 6:00 or 6:30am worked well—even on days when it was hot and humid. Walking is a great way to start the day and can help ease symptoms such as pain and a low mood.

Depending on the weather, the time of year, and the availability of safe walkable space in your community, you may have to be a bit creative. In the summer, for example, early morning walking might be the best—especially if drinking sufficient fluids for hydration is difficult. If outdoor walking isn’t an option but walking is still something you’re able to do safely, consider climbing up and down the stairs, walking in the hallway if you live in an apartment building or institutional setting, or just marching in place while you’re sitting or standing. When it’s safe to do so, putting on headphones and listening to a book or music can help make the time pass more quickly and pleasantly.

Remaining Motivated

Sometimes, it’s hard to accept taking baby steps towards your recovery, but each step is a step in the right direction. Once you’ve completed a task, keep increasing the challenge. Transition from getting dressed to moving around your house or room. If you’ve been able to walk for 3 or 4 minutes at a time, try aiming for 5 or 10 minutes, if you can. Whatever activity you achieve, no matter how simple, congratulate yourself or provide praise and positive reinforcement for your loved one.

Throughout the course of your treatment, you might need some help getting or staying motivated to restore your physical resilience. Accept encouragement from your healthcare team and caregiver(s), even when you feel like saying “NO.” Give yourself pep talks to remind yourself that you really can do it—it may sound silly, but these pep talks can be incredibly helpful.

Reconditioning after an illness is extremely difficult and requires the determination and endurance of an Olympian! As the recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have shown, there’s no end to the strength and determination we can tap when we’re empowered to do just that!

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