It may seem ironic and counterintuitive to heed the advice to exercise after you’ve recovered from a cancer treatment. You’re likely often tired and drained. Maybe, the only thing you can think of doing most of the time is to lie down and rest. And that’s perfectly understandable.
Cancer and its treatment impact different people in different ways, so, a good rule of thumb is to learn to listen to your body.
In any case, experts point out the many wonderful benefits of regular physical activity for cancer patients after treatment. The benefits are too valuable to forego, so, taking up exercise once you’ve fully recovered from treatment is essential to maintaining, and even improving your wellbeing.
Exercise and cancer
The latest statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that there were around 165,000 cases of cancers diagnosed in 2023. The AIHW also stated that from 2015-2019, 71% of people diagnosed with cancer survived five years after the diagnosis. Other emerging research studies suggest that exercise may play a significant role in improving life expectancy and enhancing life quality after a diagnosis.
Before embarking on an exercise program either before or after your cancer treatment, it is always prudent to talk with a qualified health professional such as an oncologist, Exercise Physiologist, Physiotherapist, or general practitioner who has experienced working with cancer patients to sort out what precautions you need to take.
Living life with a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming so seeking the advice of a health professional can greatly help you navigate through an exercise program that can aid in enhancing your health. In particular, an Exercise Physiologist is trained and highly qualified to provide you with a customised, individualised training program best suited to your health condition and functional abilities.
Your Exercise Physiologist will also modify your exercise program should you have complex or uncontrolled conditions that include the following:
- moderate to severe fatigue
- shortness of breath
- low platelet count
- burns resulting from radiation therapy
- nerve damage or peripheral neuropathy
- depressed or compromised immune function
- metastatic bone cancer
Fatigue is among the top barriers to exercise for cancer patients as treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy can cause significant tiredness. Side effects such as nausea, neuropathy, muscle weakness, and joint pain can also limit your functional ability.
In addition, your EP may delay the commencement of your exercise program if you have a fever, severe anaemia, or severe weight loss.
Can exercise help people living with cancer?
Exercise is universally accepted as beneficial for everyone. However, research suggests that it can be especially beneficial to the management of cancer. Its wide- ranging benefits include the following:
- Helps improve treatment and may aid in reducing the side effects of treatment
Generally, exercise may enhance the body’s response to treatment, regardless of the type or stage of cancer. Moreover, physical activity may also combat the fatigue that comes after treatment. In over 60 studies led by the Memorial Sloane Kettering (MSK) Cancer Centre in the U.S. across different cancer types and treatments, exercise was found to have a very positive effect on patients with fatigue. The Centre’s site stated further that while the human body may be programmed to say it’s too tired, the opposite is actually true: exercise makes the body less tired.
In cases where surgery was performed such as in lung cancer patients, exercise may enhance recovery and reduce the time required for in-patient recovery. Physical activity may also help ease and address the side effects of cancer treatment such as neuropathy, muscle weakness, and joint pain.
- Improve your overall health and wellbeing
Regular physical activity may help enhance your overall health and quality of life after your cancer treatment as it confers benefits such as allowing you to stay active and mobile, help in falls prevention, build strength, prevent muscle and bone loss, aid in maintaining healthy weight, and support heart and lung fitness, among many others.
There are also studies that associate exercise with better survival rates for some cancers such as breast and colorectal cancers.Building muscle strength is crucial in addressing the body’s decline in mass and strength as well as the deconditioning that occurs after cancer treatment.
- May help reduce the risks of co-existing conditions and other cancers
Other health concerns that you may have in addition to cancer are termed co-existing conditions. One of the most frequently asked queries regarding the cancer and exercise link is “Does exercise prevent cancer?” The Cancer Council of Victoria states that exercise is essential in reducing the risk of many cancers. In addition, regular physical activity may also help manage co-existing conditions and other maladies such as diabetes and heart disease.
- Improve your mental health
Regular physical activity may help reduce the risk of anxiety and depression, two concerns of special consideration among cancer patients.
Strategies for finding the motivation to exercise after treatment
One thing that can put perspective into having cancer and getting treatment is realising that each day is different, and there will be days when you feel better than the others. So, the advice given earlier about learning how to listen to your body holds.
Here, we list some strategies to help you get motivated to be physically active.
- Pick the activities you enjoy
Perhaps, this is the most important strategy to employ since this will help ensure compliance in the long term. One of the frequently asked questions regarding the matter is probably this: “What are the best exercises for cancer patients?” The answer, of course, depends on your health condition and goals. Another good response would be the exercises that you enjoy doing because these will ensure compliance.
Do you like to walk instead of running? Swim instead of lifting in the gym? Practice yoga in place of calisthenics? Choosing what you really enjoy doing can help ensure that you’ll stick with it.
- Set realistic goals
As it is, having a cancer diagnosis and getting treatment can already be overwhelming. So, it pays to start with small, achievable goals rather than dream big and then lose motivation when you don’t meet your goal. Conversely, meeting small goals can reinforce your commitment and further motivate you to exercise.
An offshoot of this strategy is learning how to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement can help you keep going even when circumstances become challenging.
- Establish a routine
The way you can get office work done is to plan a specific time for it and treat it like an appointment. The same goes for exercise. Build the habit of exercising by being consistent and creating a routine. Having said that, it is also important to allow variety in your program so it can keep you from being bored and make the habit a lot more fun.
- Keep an exercise diary
Journalling your progress allows you to monitor your progress as well as learn what exercises work and what doesn’t. An exercise journal can also serve as an important reminder of the need to keep to an appointed time for regular physical activity.
- Be mindful of your body
Are you feeling tired or experiencing soreness or discomfort? Talk to your Exercise Physiologist if your program requires modifying or your body needs a break. Ease into exercise instead of cranking up the intensity especially if you’ve been inactive for a while or have been sedentary for a long time. If your immunity has been considerably weakened by treatment, ask your Exercise Physiologist if you can exercise outdoors or in a less-crowded facility. Stay hydrated and eat a healthy diet.
- Tap into technology to help fuel your motivation
Used correctly, fitness apps and wearable devices can be excellent sources of motivation. These can help you monitor your progress as well as keep you on track with your health and well-being goals.
- Join a group
Exercising with other people can be motivating and at the same time, the camaraderie can provide you with a sense of support and community.
- Put your focus on the health benefits and visualise your goals
Setting your attention to the benefits of exercise and staying positive by visualising your health goals can provide extra motivation and keep you on track even when the going gets tough.
The importance of a customised treatment program: Exploring the FITT Principle
Every individual’s cancer journey is different – how the body reacts to cancer and its treatment, the rate of recovery, etc. Hence, a customised exercise intervention program specially tailored to your condition and needs is vital to ensure optimal results as well as avoid aggravating your state of health.
One tried and tested way of putting together a well-designed exercise intervention program is by following the FITT Principle.
FITT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type. Each component works in tandem with each other to help come up with a sensible program and support you in achieving your goals. Let’s explore each component in more detail:
It means how often you exercise, the point being how to achieve your health goals without overtraining. Planning for frequency involves the number of times you must perform cardiovascular exercise or strength training to achieve your health goal. It also includes putting in ample rest days to aid in your body’s recovery.
This refers to the level of difficulty of the exercise. For strength training, intensity is measured by these variables: the amount of weight lifted, the number of repetitions per set that are completed, and the total number of sets done. For cardiovascular exercise, you can measure how hard you’re working by monitoring your heart rate and aiming to exercise within your target heart rate zone.
This is the duration that you perform your exercise. The recommended guideline for Australian adults is at least 150 minutes (around two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity exercise weekly or half that number for high-intensity exercise.
The guidelines call for at least 30 minutes of cardio workouts per session while strength training usually lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour. Your Exercise Physiologist will adjust the duration according to your condition and needs.
Type is about the kind of exercise you’ll be performing under the categories of cardiovascular and strength training. Cardio training can involve running, brisk walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, and other aquatic exercises.
Resistance training may include squats, pullups, pushups, situps, and other moves that use free weights, machines, resistance bands, or body weight to promote muscular hypertrophy or the building of muscle mass.
Using the FITT principle as a tool is a good way to design a well-structured exercise program for individuals of all fitness levels. It considers variety to help alleviate boredom and burnout because even the most ardent exerciser is bound to get bored doing the same routine day in and day out for months. The FIIT principle is also especially helpful in addressing training plateaus – when your program isn’t working as well as it did in promoting weight loss, for example, or building muscle mass.
Getting FITT in a SMART way
Another useful strategy to ensure optimal outcomes is to use the FIIT principle in tandem with SMART goal setting.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This strategy can help clarify your health goals, make them realistic, align them with your long-term aspirations, and add a sense of urgency to act on them.
Here’s a good example of applying both to a health goal: Instead of just saying “I want to lose weight,” you can modify and clarify the statement as:
“I will lose 15 pounds (specific) in the next three months (time-bound) by doing 30 minutes of cardio exercises five times a week (frequency) and two sessions of 30-minute strength training involving two sets of ten reps each set (intensity) of body weight squats, dumbbell chest presses, machine pulldowns, dumbbell rows, and dumbbell shoulder presses (type) two times a week (frequency).”
Physical Exercise and Cancer
To conclude, embracing regular exercise after your cancer treatment may initially appear challenging. However, it becomes crucial to acknowledge the role of physical activity in helping improve your health and manage the side effects of treatment, among many other benefits, to be of paramount importance.
If you want to start an exercise regimen but don’t know where and how to begin, our Allied Health Team of accredited Exercise Physiologists and Physiotherapists at Healthstin is always ready to support you. Just call 1300 090 931 or click this link to connect.
Adopting strategies, such as choosing enjoyable activities, setting realistic goals, and maintaining a routine, can be effective in overcoming exercise barriers and finding the motivation to be physically active. With the guidance of your Exercise Physiologist, you can successfully navigate your journey towards enhanced health and wellbeing, as well as a fulfilling life after cancer treatment through the transformative power of exercise.