Tips on starting exercise after cancer

Talk to your specialist cancer doctor or nurse If you are not sure about whether you can start to exercise

Many people with a cancer diagnosis are understandably cautious about starting to undertake physical activity. Can exercise make my cancer spread? Will it make my treatment side effects worse? How will it work with my treatment? These are very common questions.

 

If you are not sure about whether you can start to exercise or if you should avoid any specific activities, ask your specialist cancer doctor or nurse for advice

 

It’s worth remembering the American College of Sports Medicine statement that, “exercise is not only safe and feasible during cancer treatment, but that it can also improve physical functioning, fatigue and multiple aspects of quality of life”. The key is to introduce exercise gradually and to take a cautious approach – starting with low intensity activity and progressing slowly as your exercise tolerance increases.

Talk to a professional

If you are not sure about whether you can start to exercise or if you should avoid any specific activities, ask your specialist cancer doctor or nurse for advice. You can also talk to an exercise professional qualified in cancer rehabilitation or with a background in in treating individuals with cancer or cancer-related symptoms. There may be someone working at your hospital or your GP may be able to refer you to someone at a local leisure centre or gym. In some areas, you can access individual or group exercise programmes for people with cancer. Charities, such as Trekstock, offer exercise programmes to get you moving during and after cancer treatment.

There’s no universal exercise prescription. After all, we have different levels of experience and abilities, and our own personal preferences. However, the message is the same whether you are a seasoned 10km runner or a complete exercise novice – start slowly and gradually build up the number of times you exercise each week, how hard you work (intensity), how long you exercise for during each session and the types of activities you do.

When fatigue strikes

There will be times, particularly during treatment, when you simply can’t get out of bed because the fatigue is too much. The important thing is to recognise and accept that some days will be tougher than others and not get too despondent. Instead, picture your longer-term goals – for example, this could be the 5km charity walk or the 10km run you will do next year. Focus on the periods when you feel better and when you do make it your aim to get up and get moving. You can start small as you build up your stamina. Even a short stroll outdoors or gentle stretching will make you feel a little better at this stage.

Tips on starting exercise

  • Stay safe – share your physical activity plans with your doctor or nurse. Only go ahead with exercise if your doctor agrees it is safe for you to do so. Ask about any precautions you should take.
  • Start slow and small – don’t go too hard or too fast at the beginning. You will only exhaust yourself and you run an increased risk of injury.
  • Make a plan – set realistic goals for yourself and build up your activity gradually.
  • Listen to your body – some days will be better than others, so adapt your activities accordingly. On the down days remember that doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing.
  • Make it social – exercising with friends and family can make it feel more like fun and provide the support you may need.
  • Own your space – don’t feel embarrassed if you exercise in public and don’t worry what others think about you or your workout.