Health & Fitness

For cancer fighter, exercise is key

WORKING IT OUT:  Homestead resident Belkys Brito exercises in the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Allapattah.
WORKING IT OUT: Homestead resident Belkys Brito exercises in the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Allapattah. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Belkys Brito was devastated by her breast cancer diagnosis.

She had received tough medical diagnoses in the past, having tested positive for HIV in the ’90s. But her cancer diagnosis in 2013 was much harder to accept.

“I was more devastated than with the HIV diagnosis,” said Brito, who is now in remission. “To me, for some reason, HIV is something that could have been avoided easily.”

Luckily at the time, Brito, 46, who lives in Homestead, was enrolled in the Healthy Living for Better Days program, an exercise training and nutrition education community program for HIV patients at the University of Miami’s UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center. She credits the program for starting her on a healthy lifestyle.

“I think I felt the lump because I didn’t have much fat on my breast,” said Brito, who had lost more than 50 pounds before her diagnosis. “If I hadn’t been doing exercises before I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Maintaining a physically active lifestyle can be critical in maintaining weight, reducing high blood pressure and alleviating depression and anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It also helps reduce the risks of osteoporosis, which is important for women as bone mass tends to peak at about 30 for women, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. After that point there are minimal changes until the first few years after menopause when bone loss occurs more rapidly.

Eduard Tiozzo, an exercise physiologist and postdoctoral research associate at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UM Miller School of Medicine, says physical activity can be viewed as an investment in long-term health.

For stronger bones, strength training can be a more beneficial workout than cardio, according to Tiozzo, who worked with Brito when she was in the Healthy Living for Better Days program.

“This isn’t to say cardio is a waste of time,” Tiozzo said. “But resistance and strength training will strengthen your bones more.”

As the name suggests, cardio workouts help with heart health, which can lead to overall health improvements. Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women in the United States, according to the CDC.

“Exercise helps,” said Stephanie Godsea, a physical therapist at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital. “If you live an active lifestyle and you eat well, you can sometimes prolong the use of medications for certain diseases.”

Brito knows these benefits all too well. She kept working out after she learned she had cancer, and is still living a healthy and active lifestyle today.

“I never stopped walking,” she said, while nibbling on a mango she picked from a tree in her backyard. “When I was under treatment I would exercise but it wasn’t anything hard it was very low and low intensity, but it helped me.”

She says the side effects of the cancer treatment were lessened by working out a few times a week doing cardio and weights, along with yoga and aqua fitness.

The CDC recommends people exercise 150 minutes a week — which breaks down to about 2 1/2 hours. These workouts don’t have to be done all at once; they can be broken into chunks of time.

Tiozzo said that even activities such gardening and a walk around the block help, and that people should not be discouraged if they don’t see physical results right away.

“Even if there is no change on the scale, the body is still getting the benefits,” he said.

Although exercising earlier in life won’t eliminate the effects of the natural aging process, it can help a person start off at a better place, and go into their older years with healthier habits.

“It’s never too late to start exercising,” Tiozzo said.