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Exercising Safely: How to Find a Qualified Personal Trainer

Welcome to blog #2 on exercising safely after breast cancer treatment. In this blog I will talk about what makes a qualified personal trainer and how to find one in your area.

We all know that the topic of exercise for breast cancer survivors is a hot, hot topic. And I first want to thank all of you who chimed in on my first blog and pointed out some very important factors regarding exercising safely after treatment and some important variables regarding lymphedema. This is truly why I love working with this community—you are so passionate and intelligent when it comes to what is right for you and your body. I commend you for that!

Among doctors, physical/lymphedema therapists, and personal trainers, there are those who are great, good, and not so great. I see it as part of my responsibilities to make sure that you know what to look for in order to find one of the good, if not one of the great, qualified personal trainers prepared to work with you. Now, the issue becomes finding one in your area. While the general population can go just about anywhere and get suitable exercise advice, breast cancer survivors do not have that luxury. Happily, this is changing. The research is becoming more and more available that tells us that exercise can be safe for most breast cancer survivors. Strength training exercises must be performed correctly and with the proper guidelines in order to be safe and beneficial for breast cancer survivors. Personally, I’m an advocate of the Physical Activity and Lymphedema (PAL) Trial protocol that was developed at the University of Pennsylvania. After working on this trial, I started a program called PALS for Life so that I can continue my work with breast cancer survivors to help them develop safe exercise routines. I also travel around the country training qualified personal trainers and lymphedema therapists how to safely and effectively plan exercise programs for survivors with and at risk for lymphedema. Having said this, qualified therapists and trainers are still few and far between. I have put together a list of some specific qualifications that you, as a breast cancer survivor, should look for in a personal trainer.

  • The trainer MUST have a national personal trainers certification:
    • Some very well-respected organizations are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
  • A trainer with a Cancer and Exercise Training Certification (CET) from ACSM would be fantastic! (see explanation of this certification below)
  • A degree in an exercise physiology-related field would be great.
  • Experience working with a variety of clients (a good cross-section of clients would include older adults, people who are in shape, people who are deconditioned, and obviously breast cancer survivors).
  • They must have the ability to listen to you as a client and take in what you’re communicating that you want out of your program.
  • They must have the ability to take all of what you say and put it in the shape of a safe and effective exercise program for you.
  • I prefer that they work with a reputable health club/organization, or have an accredited business license as an independent professional.
  • If she/he is an in-home trainer, trainers’ insurance and adequate health history forms (for collecting your personal health history) are a must.
  • Always ask for and check at least three references for any trainer!

National certifications for personal trainers have come a long way over the past 25 years. ACSM, NASM, and ACE are three of the top ones. This does not mean that personal trainers who have other national certifications are not as qualified to work with you. On the contrary, I have met many trainers who have lesser-known certifications but who are extremely well versed in the body and how it works before, during, and after cancer. I believe that the best way to find a trainer who is right for you is to set up a meeting, learn about their education, experience, and their reasons for wanting to work with you. I have been a nationally certified personal trainer since 1993 and I can tell you without hesitation that a great deal of my education came from working with students with disabilities. I learned how to adapt the environment, the program goals, and anything else that needed to be adapted in order to allow the students to succeed. I have carried this over into my career of personal training breast cancer survivors and into the PALS for Life workshops I teach. My education allows me to be a very good trainer, but my passion and desire to help people put health and wellness back into their lives is what drives me to continue to learn and grow as my career moves forward. Look for this quality in your trainer. No doctor, therapist, or trainer can know everything that there is to know about you, your cancer, or your treatment, but their passion to do right by you should ensure that they do everything they can to design the best exercise program for you.

How to find a qualified trainer in your area:

You can find a qualified certified cancer exercise trainer (CET) in your area on the American College of Sports Medicine website. As you click on “certification,” you’ll be able to choose which specific certification/registry level you’re looking for. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a “Find a Personal Trainer” drop-down menu on the right hand side about halfway down the page. It’s very well hidden, so look carefully. You can find qualified trainers/therapists who have gone through the PALS for Life training with me at www.cancersurvivorfitness.com. Just click on “Find a Trainer.”

Specifically, professionals who hold the ACSM’s Cancer and Exercise Trainer certification have demonstrated knowledge on targeted competencies associated with a variety of cancers, including breast cancer. Recommended competencies listed on the ACSM CET webpage include: “Understanding of the potential impact of cancer therapy, especially surgery and chemotherapy, in putting cancer patients at increased risk of injury and other complications, such as lymphedema, from exercise.” The CET exam tests one’s knowledge on topics including, but not limited to, exercise physiology and related exercise science of the cancer patient/survivor, exercise prescription and programming for the cancer patient/survivor, along with clinical and medical considerations and physiology, diagnosis, and treatment of the cancer patient/survivor. This particular certification was built by a panel of experts in the cancer and exercise fields.

Other certified personal trainers can certainly gain knowledge on their own, and this is why I strongly suggest that you meet with the potential trainer—do not judge a book by its cover, or its certification.

This is a very important topic as we all understand how important exercise is to breast cancer survivors. I welcome your comments and questions! Please remember that we are all on the same side—we all want survivors with and at risk for lymphedema to be healthy, active, and empowered.

Cathy has been a personal fitness trainer since 1993 and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). As research coordinator for the Physical Activity and Lymphedema trial (PAL) at University of Pennsylvania, Cathy lead the data collection effort, personal-trained breast cancer survivors, and taught staff how to train survivors. Cathy also worked on the Wiser Sister study, which is looking at the effects of aerobic exercise on estrogen levels in women at high risk for developing breast cancer. She has taught functional strength training to cancer survivors at the Wellness Community of Philadelphia and created individual programs for recently diagnosed cancer patients to improve their fitness and well-being. Her work includes training before, during, and after treatment. Cathy now runs PALS for Life, an organization that offers safe strength training to breast cancer survivors based on the PAL research findings. You can also connect with PALS for Life on Facebook.

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