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Get REAL & HEEL joins the fight against cancer by helping improve physical health

cancer exercise program
"The community... has been unbelievable for so many years," says Dr. Claudio Battaglini, director of the Get REAL and HEEL program, an exercise oncology program for cancer patients located at the outdoor education center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

The Get REAL & HEEL, a fitness and exercise training group for cancer patients and survivors, aids in the fight against cancer by improving the quality of life for cancer patients.

The program provides participants with the ability to get their health back on track, both physically and mentally. The exercise training is designed to alleviate stress from the tedious process of cancer treatment and recovery, as well as to provide a support group and community of people who are in it together in trying to rid the symptoms of cancer from their lives.

“The ultimate mission of the program is to help the patients live the best quality of life they can possibly live in the context of their disease,” said Claudio Battaglini, director and co-founder of the Get REAL & HEEL Program.

Battaglini was originally an endurance sports coach at the international level, with some of his athletes achieving World Champion status and Pan-American Champion status and making Olympic Game appearances. 

After leaving the University of Northern Colorado, he began to conduct research in the study of exercise oncology and he was later prompted to train a cancer patient instead of an athletic champion. 

He then worked for Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute – the first facility of its kind in the country. In 2004, he brought the idea to UNC by starting in the exercise physiology program, then co-founding the Get REAL & HEEL Program two years later with assistant professor of exercise and sport science Diane Groff.

The program enrolls each participant in a period of 16 weeks of supervised exercise three days per week for one hour per day. The facility is open for participants to come in on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, anytime from 7:00 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m., Battaglini said. 

Each session, with a group of five to eight participants, includes a warm-up of aerobic and cardiovascular exercises, using various machines and equipment adapted to each individual’s needs and setbacks for about 30 minutes, Battaglini said.

Next, the group transitions to a resistance training circuit with a plethora of strength-building exercises, which every participant takes at their own pace. Depending on the individual, different muscles are strengthened, said DJ Amatuli, one of two trainers for Get REAL & HEEL. 

Exercises can include anything from stationary biking and stair-stepping to weight training and balance or flexibility exercises.

Lastly, the group cools down with five to 10 minutes of light stretches. The focus of the program is on building functional exercise, Battaglini said.

Patients experience much more than physical improvement. 

Amatuli has noticed a significant shift in the participants’ attitudes and confidence. 

“People are gaining their control and independence back, and they’re happier because they are finally getting past this trauma,” Amatuli said. “They’re getting to play with their kids like they haven’t before, and they’re getting their lives back on track again.”

Get REAL & HEEL means the world to the participants. Battaglini said many participants have described this program as a “lifeline.”

For participant Sharon Stevens, 46, seeing the same people week after week who are going through the same struggles has been instrumental in her recovery. It’s not just a community of mentors — it’s a community of friends. She said the support from the trainers and directors has been constant and unwavering.

“When you have cancer, it can get you down," Stevens said. "Regardless of the support you have from friends and family, having an outside source saying ‘we can get you strong again’ having a professional source ‘come to us, and we’ll help you’  — it just made a huge difference.”

Stevens said she is looking forward to getting her health back. 

Get REAL & HEEL has now served more than 1,000 patients since its creation. Battaglini said that it has even served as a model for similar programs nationally and internationally, including one in Australia and one in Brazil.

Battaglini is still expanding his vision for the growth of Get REAL & HEEL, hoping to reach a much larger number of patients. Most importantly, he hopes that the idea of a program like this will become an integral and required aspect of the cancer treatment process.

“Just like cardiac rehabilitation requires patients to exercise, we need to integrate exercise into cancer rehabilitation,” Battaglini said. “It’s a fundamental need in order to optimize the care of our cancer patients.”

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