In the past, people undergoing cancer treatment were told not to exercise, but to rest as much as possible. Although getting good rest is for important, we now know that regular exercise is very important for patients undergoing cancer treatment and those who have completed treatment. Regular moderate exercise may also help with anxiety and depression.
Other benefits of regular exercise include feeling more in control and less stressed, enjoying the release of “feel good” natural chemicals from exercising, becoming stronger, less fatigue associated with cancer treatment, and improving overall cardiovascular, bone, and muscle health.
So, as a cancer survivor, how should you go about safely getting into an exercise routine? Here are some tips to get you started and help you stay motivated to continue a healthy exercise routine.
Vary Your Exercise
Your exercise program should include these different types of exercise:
Cardiovascular, also called “cardio,” cardiovascular exercise is any exercise that makes your heart pump harder for a period of time. This kind of exercise is great for improving your overall fitness, how well your body is able to use oxygen, and helps with improving endurance, weight loss, and fighting fatigue. You should include cardio exercise most days of the week
Strength and resistance exercise uses resistance, such as weights, bands, or your own body weight, to increase your muscle strength and improve bone strength. Be sure to include this kind of exercise 2 to 3 times every week. Include a day of rest in between the days you do strength and resistance work
Flexibility Although the other 2 forms of exercise improve heart and skeletal muscle strength, working on flexibility through safe stretching helps us avoid injury and improve posture. Stretching should be a part of a daily exercise routine
A combination of all 3 throughout the week is important!
How to Start
After getting the go-ahead from your oncologist, plan to start an exercise program slowly. Consider some activities that you may enjoy. It is good to have different options that will be available to you throughout the week. Although the recommended goal is to exercise 15 to 40 minutes most days of the week, it is best to start by exercising for a short time each day and gradually build up.
You can also exercise in small increments throughout the day. Even splitting your exercise time to 10 minutes, 2 to 3 times during the day, adds up to a good total amount of exercise, and you still get the same great benefit.
Your exercise program doesn’t need to be fancy. Walking is one of the best ways to start an exercise program. Almost everyone is able to walk, and walking does not require a gym membership or expensive equipment. A good, sturdy pair of walking shoes is all you need.
Many communities and healthcare facilities have support services for people looking at starting a healthy exercise routine. Ask your nurse or navigator to recommend an exercise program that is specific for you, depending on the phase of your treatment. Although you don’t have to join a gym or a club to exercise safely and effectively, many YMCA facilities offer low-cost or no-cost programs for patients with cancer. Ask if the exercise specialists have experience working with cancer patients/survivors.
To help you stay motivated, it may be helpful to find an “exercise buddy” or a group of people who are also committed to regular exercise. Keep track of your activity in some way, so that you can observe your progress.
Smartphones have different helpful apps, and a pedometer is a great way to track how many steps you take in a day.
If you are currently receiving cancer treatment, either skip or reduce the intensity of your workout on treatment days. Go lighter and slower. Listen to your body, and pay attention to any signs that you may be doing too much.
If you are not in treatment, keep the intensity of your exercise moderate—this means that even if you are breathing more heavily, you should still be able to talk while you are exercising. If you are unable to talk while exercising, slow down your pace—this means you are working too hard!
Many cancer survivors find that regular exercise makes them feel so much better overall. Once you get started, the increased feeling of strength, improved self-image, reduced fatigue, and less stress make all this effort well worth it!
- American College of Sports Medicine
- National Cancer Institute
- American Cancer Society
- American Institute of Cancer Research