I sat on the exam table. A ball of nerves as my surgeon described the port-o-cath she would be implanting under my skin to facilitate my chemotherapy infusions.
It would be in my body for at least a year.
“It’s important to stay active during treatment,” she said. “Just don’t lift weights. You can run, for example.”
My heart sank.
I’m a personal trainer. And avid weight lifter. And prior to my breast cancer diagnosis, an endurance runner.
And the first signal to me that something was wrong, was that I couldn’t run.
In the span of days, I had already had so much taken from me- now she was trying to take my hobby and vocation.
And I thought, not again.
The Pervasive Myths Around Women’s Health and Exercise
As a mom and as a personal trainer who specializes in working with pregnant and postpartum people, I’m too familiar with the pervasive and damaging myths around exercise.
Particularly in the realm of women’s health.
If you’ve ever been pregnant, you’ve probably been told not to lift more than 10-15 pounds.
If you’ve experienced pelvic health considerations- prolapse, incontinence, diastasis recti- you’ve probably been told what you shouldn’t do.
We’re told to just not do the stuff that makes the symptoms flare.
We’re told not to lift heavy weights. To avoid impact exercise.
We’re not told that lifting weights is actually crucial for staving off and managing many common women’s health issues.
We’re not told that actually, we just need a little education and strategy to continue these activities safely.
We’re not told how to do what we want to do.
Or that there IS a path forward for us.
A Call to Medical Providers: Use Evidence-Based Recommendations for Exercise
While there are medical providers and personal trainers working on the front lines of women’s exercise, their voices are diluted by outdated and incorrect information that perpetuates the idea that we’re fragile.
The search engines favor large medical advice websites that prioritize ad revenue over accuracy.
And doctors aren’t incentivized to stay current with respect to exercise recommendations. Or to refer patients to more qualified colleagues, such as physical therapists and exercise specialists.
As I began a year of active cancer treatment, I’d run into this again and again.
For my part, once my surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to lift weights, I went and found a new surgeon.
Because the advice the first surgeon gave me wasn’t evidence-based.
And because my life experience has cultivated a strong bullshit detector honed for these scenarios.
Ultimately, I found providers offering up-to-date recommendations and who supported my desire to lift weights through treatment.
But it’s important to acknowledge that in this situations- during the vulnerable times when we’re pregnant, or experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction, or recieveing a cancer diagnosis- most of us are going to defer to the “experts”.
We take a trustfall and accept the advice handed to us.
Which makes it all the more important that primary care providers be familiar with current evidence IF they are going to make recommendations around exercise.
A Missing Link in Women’s Healthcare: Resistance Training and Lifting Weights
Since that day I sat on the exam table, I’ve had a double mastectomy with a handful of lymph nodes removed. And once again, I’m bombarded the age-old messaging:
Don’t lifts weights.
It’s a risk factor for lymphedema. And lymphedema is scary.
And once again, this outdated advice doesn’t keep up with research.
There’s peer-reviewed science reaching back to at least 2009 documenting the BENEFITS for prevention of lymphema and maintenance of symptoms.
And to tell women who have been through cancer treatment not to lift weights?
It impacts our health, autonomy and quality of life for decades to come.
Resistance training and lifting weights is ESSENTIAL for the bone health of all women and ESPECIALLY breast cancer survivors.
It contributes to reduced rates of breast cancer reoccurrence.
When you tell women not to move, when you tell them what they can’t do- you take their agency and their confidence.
And you set them up for poorer health in the long term.
Moving Beyond Harmful Misconceptions: Exercise is Essential for Women’s Health
Lifting weights contributes to strength, health and longevity.
And outside of critical tissue healing timelines and when done correctly, it’s safe.
Around breast cancer treatment.
The evidence is irrefutable
We’ve moved beyond the era when the cutting-edge of medicine thought that running would cause a woman’s uterus to jiggle out.
In the absence of specific contraindications, telling women not to lift weights does harm.
It should not be generic advice.
Now is the time to stop perpetuating misguided and harmful information about exercise.
We know better.
Exercise, lifting weights- it’s not optional. It’s not trivial. It’s not a “nice-to-have”.
It’s essential to ensuring women live long, healthy, vibrant lives.
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
Laura Jawad holds a PhD and a personal training certification (NASM). She’s a Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach, and Pregnancy and Postpartum Corrective Exercise Specialist. You can check out the rest of her alphabet soup here.