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U of C study helps kids, families stay active during cancer treatment

A new study at the University of Calgary hopes to support kids and teens to stay active while undergoing cancer treatment.

The Implementation of Physical Activity for Children and Adolescents on Treatment (IMPACT) is an individualized exercise program delivered virtually for 12 weeks for any child or adolescent affected by cancer or blood disease.

“We know exercise is really great for so many of the different issues these children might face, things like fatigue, pain and feeling like they can’t do something anymore,” said Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed, a kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary and co-developer of IMPACT. “This gives them back that opportunity to feel better and be more in control.”

Culos-Reed said kids often become inactive during treatment and currently there are no formalized exercised programs to support them. IMPACT follows a protocol developed by the U of C but exercise specialists adapt each session to meet children where they are at.

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“We’re talking movement and our slogan is ‘move more,’” explained Culos-Reed. “Anything they can do to move their bodies, even if it is just a little bit.”

Click to play video: 'Summer family fitness activities'

Summer family fitness activities

The goal of integrating movement into treatment also helps mitigate a typical decline in activity, allowing kids to get back to their exercise of choice more quickly.

Sessions are delivered online to remove barriers like appointment schedules and location for kids participating in the study. Each participant is paired with an exercise specialist so a relationship can be built.

“It makes my heart smile because I think that is one of the whole purposes of this intervention,” said Emma McLaughlin, a PhD student at the University of Calgary and one of IMPACT’s exercise specialists. “Meet the children where they are at… it’s amazing the friendships that we are able to connect and build online.”

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McLaughlin has been working with 10-year-old Mira Penney who was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor in August 2022. Penney underwent surgery and chemo, but got an infection that hospitalized her for three months which is when she signed up for IMPACT.

The two have been exercising together for three months, finding ways to keep Penney active, even when she didn’t have the energy.

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“We always go according to how I’m feeling which is why I really liked it,” said Penney. “Because even on the days when I was like ‘No, I’m not doing it,’ I still managed to do it.”

McLaughlin checks in with Penney throughout sessions, always asking what she is feeling up to and making sure to not push her further than she is able.

“We do tailor it based on how they’re feeling,” says McLaughlin. “Some days that might be sitting in bed or sitting on a chair. Or some days that might be standing — it’s really driven by the kids.”

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IMPACT is being studied in real time, meaning researchers are constantly interviewing healthcare professionals, family members and patients to see how they are doing. The team would like to see exercise built into the clinical care of children at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

The benefits of IMPACT are already being touted by participants and family.

“We would do a session with Emma and (Mira would) be like ‘Well, okay, maybe I do have the energy, maybe I can draw,’” said Bridget Penney, Mira’s mom. “Just for all the little mindsets, it was huge… The little things build on each other and it becomes a bigger thing.”

The study is recruiting participants. Anyone interested in taking part can self-nominate or speak to their physician about signing up.

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