Setting the Bar Low

Posted on: January 8th, 2016 by

This year, my goal – not my resolution – on fitness is to set the bar low.

I was never a super athlete. But prior to cancer, I was in great shape and enjoyed exercise. Now, after years of grieving what I’ve lost, I have finally accepted my physical limitations and, with some creativity, have turned them into opportunities.


After diagnosis and after radiation and after chemotherapy ended – and I’m lucky to say “ended” – it understandably took me awhile to regain my strength. An aromatase inhibitor (AI) didn’t help matters, as I could barely move due to crippling joint and bone pain. Yet, after my oncologist took me off the AI, I still recovered sufficiently to start exercising again.

In the year leading up to my bilateral mastectomy with DIEP flap reconstruction, I was in the best shape of my life. Physical fitness and healthy eating would be paramount to helping me get through the surgery and the difficult recovery ahead.

So by day, I ran, walked, did weight training, and swam. Every night, I listened to a guided imagery CD by Belleruth Naparstek, titled Meditations to Promote Successful Surgery. This CD helped me visualize surgical success and thorough healing.

Exercising My Demons

The healing process, though, was excruciatingly slow. Walking was painful. Running would be out of the question forever.

I continued to swim, but I wanted another physical outlet, as well. I decided to ride a bicycle again after a long hiatus from this activity. So I bought a beautiful, brand spanking new bicycle.

You know that saying that once you learn to ride a bike you never forget how? Well, I actually “forgot” how to ride. Biking used to be such a joy, and now I could not balance, thanks to cancer’s collateral damage, including the side effects of my PTSD medications. Meanwhile, my two-wheeled nemesis is gathering dust in the shed.

In fact, lack of balance has been one of my many post-cancer surprises. The few times I go down a flight of stairs, I hold onto the banister for dear life. And I’m no longer able to ice skate, something I previously enjoyed a lot. My daughter recently went on an ice skate play date, and I had to stand on the sidelines cheering her on while she held onto the wall. Eventually, her friend’s mother came over and held her hand, encouraging her to move away from the wall. I experienced great joy watching my daughter find her way, but deep down inside I felt I should have been on the ice encouraging her, and my daughter should’ve been holding my hand instead.

Skater Ari

And, until recently, fear of lymphedema in my right arm kept me from bowling. Period.

Truth is, I have spent too many years grieving my former athletic self and focusing on what I can no longer do. Now it’s time to stop feeling sorry for myself, accept my limitations, and embrace the activities I can do.

Seizing Opportunities

In the world of exercise, setting the bar low is not a bad concept. To me, it means a change in perspective – setting achievable goals rather than lofty ones.

The first step was to renew my gym membership. The next step was on the indoor track, which I especially love during the harsh Midwestern winters. I still swim regularly, but recently I added another activity to my exercise repertoire: bike riding.

Just yesterday, I took the stationary bike at my gym for a spin. And it was a great experience, as I got a bicycle workout and didn’t have to worry about balance. As I write this, my out-of-shape legs are sore, but I’m happy.

Stationary Bike

I plan to start lifting light weights in small increments. I now bowl left handed. I’ve adjusted my routine and now think creatively to embrace activities I never thought I could do again.

I’m done grieving the things I can no longer do. I’m just an ordinary person trying to cope the best I can with what I’ve lost – by focusing on the abundance that I still have.

Do you fare better setting the exercise bar high or low or in-between?

What are your challenges in taking care of your health?

How have you overcome limitations?

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17 Responses to Setting the Bar Low

  1. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, I like your approach a lot. I think we get too caught up in wanting to be like we used to and we forget we can adjust to changes and still get some great results. Like you, I’ve given up expecting myself to be like I was before cancer, generally speaking.

    I have tried to incorporate some exercises in my daily life, for example, I walk to every place. I also try to take the stairs to my apt. (I live on the 7th floor). I remind myself to get up from my chair at work and walk around the office several times a day. Doing general cleaning (not just concentrating in one area), has also helped me. I gain some level of energy by moving around a lot. The one sport I enjoy doing, and still do very well, is biking. I try biking at least once a week for at least 3 hours during the summer. Simply love it. I don’t do gyms anymore because the discipline isn’t there the same way and I want to be able to find enjoyment when I exercise rather than finding it to be an obligation. It is great you are able to do the gym, maybe one day I will too. I’ve thought of taking boxing classes though.

    My biggest challenge is lack of encouragement and energy. I used to be an athlete and still got cancer so in the back of my head I sometimes think, would it matter? But I realize the importance of exercising and how this can help with our overall health.

    I wish you good luck with your new exercising plan! I think it is very doable especially when you’ve learned to accept your limitations and can adjust accordingly.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Rebecca,

      It’s wonderful how you keep integrating exercise in your life and have a passion for bike riding. It’s a wonderful sport, and the beauty of it also lies in the change of scenery you get when moving. I admire you for walking up 7 flights of stairs to your apartment.

      Like you, I’ve thought of taking boxing classes, but I think I’m a little too nervous for that.

      I totally get what you’re saying about your being an athlete and getting cancer anyway. That’s been a part of my thinking, too. At times, I haven’t taken care of myself, thinking that when I did take very good care of myself, I got cancer anyway. So why bother?

      But, as you say, exercise is still good for our overall health. And I find that the mental health benefits alone from exercise are well worth it.

      Keep doing what you’re doing in staying active. Your attitude is great.

  2. Stacey had this to say about that:

    Good for you! it’s just a matter of turning negative thoughts around to positive. Hard, I know, but you did it and figured out what you can do. I was never an athlete and my onc says I have to exercise, so I just bought a spin bike and so far, I love it. Riding is fun and now, I’ll think of you as I pedal away. We can do this. Good luck, Beth! Keep us posted! xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for the encouragement! I will think of you when I’m on the gym’s spin bike. I’m glad you found a form of exercise that you love. It’s really important to do this.

      I think it doesn’t matter what type of exercise one does, as long as he/she enjoys it.

      Keep on pedaling!

  3. Scott Johnson had this to say about that:

    Understand the frustration of being limited. Balance is a big problem and part of it must be loss of core strength that needs rebuilding? Used to ride my bike every day to work and now keep falling over so I’m mounting it on a stationary device to ride again. Also fine motor skills are almost gone but I can do some finger activities by using tools. We have a wind chime held together with fishing line and I’ve spent hours trying to tie the knots to restring it. No luck until I started using needle-nose pliers. Still practicing with them and carry a pair around and may make up a kit to wear on a belt.
    Worked with my hands all my life and it’s who I am to “be capable.” If I look silly picking up change from the counter at the coffee shop with pliers, too bad:-) My dentist told me yesterday they practice with heavy gloves to become more dexterous. Never know, might be called in to do dental work on a crocodile. Maybe wear a bike helmet too.
    As for exercise, I miss swimming. We have a pool at college…(fill excuse in here). But I do walk in the snow with the dog and do more every day.
    It isn’t all coming back but learning how to do things differently cuts down on the helplessness feelings.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Yes, feeling limited is very frustrating. I’m sorry you are also having balance issues. I like how you turned your bike into a stationary one. I think you’re onto something when you say balance is due to loss of core strength.

      Walking the dog counts! I think anything that gets us moving and is enjoyable to us is worth the time.

      Thank you for your comment.

  4. n had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    As you probably know by now, I am not and have never been the athletic type. I have always tried to fit exercise into my life though. I must admit that since cancer, my body has not felt nearly as cooperative (in too many ways to count) and it’s more of a struggle now. But I keep at it because I know I need too, plus I like how I feel at the end of the day if I’ve been more active. As far as that bar goes, I’m a believer in not setting it too high. Sometimes lower is better. Thanks for the post. Onward, in everything, including exercise (or as I prefer to call it, movement), too, right? My best to you in the New Year, my friend.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I totally get what you’re saying about your post-cancer body not being too cooperative. That’s exactly the way I feel. Post-cancer, it seems like I’m in a different body, and the scary thing is that I am!

      I agree, that feeling post-exercise (or movement as you so accurately call it) is wonderful.

      Setting the bar low really works for me psychologically. I tend to be an overachiever in my thinking, so this new philosophy is taking awhile to adapt to. Nevertheless, setting the bar to a realistic level is psychologically more healthy.

      Thanks for your comment. I wish you the best in the New Year, too!

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  6. Eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    I too had balance problems after treatment. I actually fell a few different times during the first year or two after. So glad that improved and the falls stopped.

    I think it’s hardest when we have areas of strength that have been hit by illness. They are part of our identity and greatest pleasures … not to be anymore. You are wise to set the bar low to set yourself up for success. I’m not always so good at acceptance. Collateral damage sucks.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m sorry you fell a bunch of times after treatment. I’ve done that, and it stinks. I’m awfully glad you are no longer falling, which of course can be dangerous.

      Yes, collateral damage sucks, and it has caused me great emotional pain to let go of the things I can no longer do. As you say, when you are hit by illness, it is so difficult to lose certain abilities.

      I’m typically not good at acceptance either, so this setting the bar low is a new concept for me. I hope I’m able to continue working out without self-imposed pressure to do more than I am able to.

  7. Kathi had this to say about that:

    As a PT, this is constantly what I do for a living, figuring out what people cannot do, then figuring out what they can do, so I can provide an exercise program that leads to success, not failure. Success is better. It’s not so much setting the bar low, but setting it with a recognition of where you are now, not where you used to be, setting it at a place that you can reach. Good for you, Beth. It’s a mark of acceptance and self-love, both of which can be hard to achieve after cancer treatment. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Being a PT must be such difficult work! I think figuring out what people can do must be a gratifying part of your job. Attaining reachable goals is thrilling.

      I never thought of my acceptance of my limitations as an expression of self-love. Your insights continue to amaze me.

  8. Lindsay McNally had this to say about that:

    Thank you Beth for your “setting the bar low” post. I also struggle daily with the way my body used to be and physical things I used to be able to do that I no longer can. It’s so hard being 37 and physically feeling much older. I’m working on embracing what my body can still do so this year I will join you in “setting the bar low”. I’m going to get on my stationary bike and do some pool laps. Cheers! Lindsay

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Way to go, Lindsay! I know what it’s like to feel older than my years, prompted by cancer diagnosis and treatment. It stinks to have such limitations.

      I’m so glad you are joining me in setting realistic workout goals. It feels so good physically and mentally to succeed at activity.

      Good for you!

  9. Wendy had this to say about that:

    I just “met” you on the patient chat today.
    I’m very impressed with how you have dealt with your battle with cancer and the continuing effects.
    You have the right mentality of starting an exercise routine, something I hope I can do at some point.
    I have severe balance issues and will be starting vestibular rehabilitation therapy soon. I was wondering if this is something that might help your balance issues?
    Mine come from my ears, I don’t know what your balance issues come from or if this therapy helps with balance issues that stem from different things.
    I was reading some previous posts and they have helped me have a better view about handling some issues I’m having to face about the future. I’ve worked so hard about not worrying about the future, now I’m being forced to make a huge decision about the future and it has been haunting me. Your post about your father and having to make decisions but still remaining mindful, hit the nail on the head.
    great read.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      It was great meeting you, albeit virtually. I’m so glad you enjoy reading my posts.

      I had never heard of vestibular rehabilitation, but I plan to look into it. Thank you for informing me about it. My balance issues are related, I believe, to the aftereffects of chemotherapy and possible side effects from medication.

      It’s so difficult to handle crucial decision-making. I think staying mindful while having to make difficult decisions is challenging, but it can be done. I’m trying to be mindful, as you know, while coping with some major problems with my dad’s health.

      Thank you for reading my posts and your comment. I wish you much luck in your rehabilitation therapy and decision making.

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