Cancer Education

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Aug 12, 2020

Restorative Exercises in Times of Stress

By Megan Roessler M. Ed., @meganroessler


Article contributed by Mayo Clinic Wellness Assessment Specialist, Sara Mansfield

This is an unusual time for all of us. We are navigating through an ever-changing situation resulting in chronic, low level stress. Dealing with the current global health crisis along with a chronic illness can compound the effects of stress on the body. How best can those affected by cancer take care of themselves through this stressful time?

In recent years, research has uncovered overwhelming evidence of the benefits of physical activity as it relates to cancer survivorship. One of the benefits seen from increased physical activity is the positive effects on stress reduction. Also, staying active can help with a sense of control. In this uniquely stressful time, let’s pause to consider how to use movement efforts to contribute to well-being in new ways.

Exercise challenges our systems, in a sense “breaking them down,” to elicit a physiologic response of reinforcing strength for the next challenge. An equally important, yet often overlooked, factor in this equation is the anabolic, or “building up” effect.

Many times this part is overlooked because we know this as “rest.” For some, resting is the harder part. We tend to equate this with “inactivity.” Striking a balance between work and rest is a major factor for overall well-being. Not the “sit on the couch and binge-watch TV” rest, but rather a conscious effort at restoration.

Consider rethinking your physical activity efforts to include restoring balance and replenishing energy with equal intention.

Here are a few suggestions…


Introduce breath work into stretch breaks or daily walks to make a moving meditation.

Coordinating the breath with movements restores energy and helps you to mentally plug into the movements, whereas holding your breath blocks much of the energy flow necessary for restoration.

Try this breathing practice: Breath Count

Sit in a comfortable upright position. Count as you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.  Try to pair counts evenly. If you count to 4 as you inhale, match that count of 4 as you exhale. Many times the focus on breathing can help to relieve stress just as much as the increased oxygen flow it creates.

Take care of the (not so) minor details

Feet are often the unsung heroes of our body. Giving them some care daily can help to energize and also stabilize our basic movements throughout the day.

Here are 2 ways you can focus on foot care:

  • Strength:

The intrinsic muscles of the foot need to be strengthened and mobilized just as our other muscles do.  Try this quick barefoot exercise. 

Short Foot

Step 1: Stand on a flat surface and press all your toes down and in (without having them leave the ground).

Step 2: Contract the arch muscles for 3 seconds and then release.

Step 3: Repeat this 3 times per day (3 days a week).

  • Mobility:

If you have ever felt the relief of taking off a constricting pair of shoes, then you have received the signal your feet are sending loud and clear. The joints, tissues and muscles of the feet need room to spread! Try this technique to spread the love.

Toe spreads

Place toe spreaders (like you get at the nail salon) in between toes and keep them there for 15-20 minutes.  You can do a toe spread manually by taking your fingers and lacing them in between your toes. If it is not initially easy to fit a finger width between your toes, do the best you can without pain. With consistent practice of this stretch, you will eventually make progress.


Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) focuses on the daily calories a person burns while doing normal, non-exercise activity.

Many times treatments and medications can leave us feeling too tired for what we think of as exercise. So give yourself a break…a movement break. Maybe it is just taking a lap around your house, or walking out to the end of the driveway and back. Even a quick stretch adds to the total benefit.

Remember, every movement counts.

Think about how best to use this time to try some new movement experiments. Adding some intentional restorative body work can both improve your regular routine and balance the effects stress. 

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity – Albert Einstein

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