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How to improve your fitness after cancer treatment

fitness-after-cancerIn the past, doctors advised cancer patients to rest after treatment, but these days more clinicians and oncologists recommend exercise as a strategy for reducing the side-effects of treatment, speeding recovery and improving overall quality of life.

We reveal how exercise can help your recovery and share tips for exercising with cancer.




If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel anxious about your future and being physically active or setting fitness goals is probably the last thing on your mind.

Add to that the impact of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormonal therapies which can include fatigue, lethargy, anxiety, depression, weight gain, reduced bone density, less muscular strength and impaired mobility, and it’s easy to see why you may feel less motivated.

Exercise can have a positive impact

Exercise can have a very positive impact on your health, mentally and physically, and can help at this difficult time.

“Many clients say they feel like they have donated their bodies to medical research after treatment and that they’ve been given back a wrecked vessel,” says Michael Smith, a personal trainer who qualified with the American College of Sports Medicine to specialize in training cancer patients to get fit.

“Exercise gives them control of their body again and helps restore one of the most important things they lose – their confidence,” Michael adds.

The benefits of exercise for cancer patients

McMillan Cancer Support has published Move More – physical activity the underrated ‘wonder drug’.

This report points out that: “Physical activity after treatment for cancer can reduce the impact of some debilitating side-effects, such as swelling around the arm, anxiety, depression, fatigue, impaired mobility and weight changes.”

Cancer survivors who exercise can also reduce their risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis, which can occur after cancer treatment.

“It’s not just about living with cancer – it’s also about surviving,” Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, says. “In some cases it (exercise) can significantly reduce the risk of dying from the disease.”

Research backs this statement. Studies from the University of California found that exercise, such as brisk walking or jogging, can lower the progression of prostate cancer.

And other research found that breast cancer patients who exercise can lower insulin levels, which has been found to have a positive effect on breast cancer outcomes and survival rates.

Tips for exercising with cancer

Michael Smith works closely with three leading cancer charities providing group sessions for cancer survivors and personal training for cancer sufferers.

Here are his 10 tips for exercising with cancer:

  1. Err on the side of caution. Keep in touch with your medical team at all times.
  2. Find an activity you enjoy. A salsa class or a walk in the park works wonders. You don’t have to follow a regime set at the gym.
  3. Do resistance work. Numerous studies have found that resistance work, even easy exercises like bicep curls, squats and lunges, will help you through treatment and have a positive impact on cancer.
  4. A systematic review of 24 studies published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 2009 recommended resistance training as part of a cancer rehab programme.

  5. Set two goals. The first is to be physically active (i.e. low intensity, like easy walking, or even housework) for 150 minutes per week. The second goal is to build this up to a moderate intensity. This usually equates to 60-70% of maximum heart rate, or roughly 7 out of 10 on a scale where 1 is lying down and 10 is flat out.
  6. Be flexible. Cancer can be a rollercoaster ride. Your goal is maintaining and improving health. Unless you were an athlete or regular fitness junkie before, this isn’t the time to try to be super fit.
  7. Make it a habit. The most important thing is frequency and consistency – which will help make exercise a habit. Doing something for five minutes three times a week is better than nothing.
  8. Avoid swimming. After radiotherapy swimming can cause skin irritation.
  9. Train at a low intensity. Avoid high intensity interval training during treatment as this can depress the immune system, which will have already taken a hammering if you’ve had chemo, due to reduction of cells in your blood. Recommended activities include yoga, Pilates, swimming, walking and specific tailored classes (similar to the 50+ type class).
  10. Exercise to relieve stress. A punch bag or boxing gloves and pads are perfect. Just don’t overdo it!
  11. Listen to your body. But don’t become ‘over-sensitized’ – don’t negatively focus on the damage you might do, just focus on the benefits of exercise.

But don’t forget – before you embark on any new exercise or fitness regime, check with your doctor to ensure it is appropriate for you.

For more information on cancer and the treatments available, visit our dedicated Cancer Centre or ask one of our experts.

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