CAPABLE Explores the Benefits of CrossFit and Cancer Recovery

April 24, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Sean Cook
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On April 13, 22 cancer survivors gathered at Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit, ready for their first-ever CrossFit class. For the next 12 weeks, this group will train together, learning the sport while improving their strength, cardiovascular fitness, and more.

These survivors are the newest cohort of Cross-Training and Physical Activity: A Better Life Experience (CAPABLE), a clinical trial that explores the benefits between CrossFit and cancer recovery. 

The big picture: CAPABLE was founded by longtime CrossFitter, Professor of Oncology, and Population Science Program Leader at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, Dr. Jennifer Beebe-Dimmer and David Finlay, owner of CrossFit in the D.

Beebe-Dimmer and Finlay started this program in 2018 after noticing the lack of physical activity resources for cancer survivors post-treatment. 

  • The CDC recommends that cancer survivors participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, with emphasis on strength training, every week. 
  • Only about a quarter of cancer survivors adhere to these guidelines, and many physicians don’t have the resources to help.

CAPABLE was created to be that resource.

The program, sponsored by the Karmanos Cancer Institute, is a high-intensity introduction to CrossFit that is free to cancer survivors (who need a medical release to participate). Beebe-Dimmer and her team complete a series of tests throughout the 12 weeks, measuring performance, quality of life, and more:

  • “We do a lot of baseline performance testing, measures of body composition, and [CAPABLE members] can voluntarily participate in a blood draw,” Beebe-Dimmer said.
  • “We also look at things like quality of life, sleep health, and cognitive function. There have been five iterations of this program… and we’ve seen some amazing results from the research.”

The results: “The most profound thing, to me, is that we’re seeing these very significant improvements over such a short time,” Beebe-Dimmer said. In just 12 weeks, many CAPABLE participants show physical improvements, like increases in lean body mass, along with clinically meaningful developments to their quality of life.

  • “It’s not so surprising that you see a performance improvement,” Beebe-Dimmer said. “We run a baseline test at the beginning, sort of a ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ test, like biking and rowing intervals, and there are improvements there.”
  • “We looked at markers of metabolic health for anyone willing to participate in a blood draw, and we’ve seen dramatic improvements… a lot of the patients, not only are they dealing with a cancer diagnosis, but are dealing with comorbidities. To see improvements over such a short time was. I was surprised.”
  • “But the improvements in quality of life, not just statistically, but clinically, are meaningful,” she continues. 
  • “We use the emotional assessment for cancer therapy, which looks at different domains for quality of life — emotional, functional, social, and psychological— and there are uniform improvements across the board.”

In video testimonials, CAPABLE participants further affirm the benefits of the program:

  • “Prior to CrossFit, I had a lot of aches and pains from the therapies, the radiation… that’s disappeared. I feel so awesome, I sleep better — my general well-being is incredibly different over the course of three months,” said David Perkins, a CAPABLE member at Northville Athletix in Northville, MI.
  • “I can lift my two little twin granddaughters with no problem,” said Kathy Cox, another Northville Athletix member. “And I can play tag with their brothers without sitting down every two minutes.”

After the 12 weeks are up, Beebe-Dimmer said, most CAPABLE participants continue taking CrossFit classes. Many gyms offer scholarships or discounts for their program members.

  • “Next to their treatment, this program has meant more to these cancer survivors than anything else. It gives them back their autonomy, and they create a new social network of people that have all gone through the same horrible thing together,” Beebe-Dimmer said. 
  • Daryl Washington, a CAPABLE participant at CrossFit in the D, echos this sentiment: “I love the program… I don’t see myself leaving CAPABLE at all. This is a life change. This is a life for me now.”

The future of CAPABLE: Beebe-Dimmer and her team currently have a paper with their research from past CAPABLE programs under review and, when it is published, will focus on “expanding smartly.” Right now, the biggest barrier to the CAPABLE program is physician education. Beebe-Dimmer explains that physicians who don’t know a lot about CrossFit are nervous to provide medical releases for their patients.

  • CrossFit has that reputation for being rather hard, but we’ve done a lot of physician education, trying to help physicians understand that the method is infinitely scalable,” Beebe-Dimmer said.
  • But once a few patients go through the program, she adds, the physicians continue to send them. 

The next CAPABLE cohort will launch in May at CrossFit Petoskey in Northern Michigan.

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