Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors

Once cancer treatment is over, your oncology team will likely suggest that you add physical activity to your routine or maintain what’s already been recommended. How much and how often exercise should take place will vary among patients, depending on the type of cancer treatments and surgeries received and side effects that are being experienced. 

Physical activity is very important for cancer survivors. Exercise can help you: 

  • Reduce fatigue
  • Boost your mood
  • Regain your stamina and strength
  • Maintain a healthy weight 

According to a study by the American Cancer Society, some cancer survivors can even reduce their risk of cancer recurrence by exercising. Staying physically active can also help reduce the risk of developing other health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even other types of cancer. Regardless of where you fall on the post-cancer spectrum, it’s never too late to incorporate exercise into your daily routine for better health. 

In Early Survivorship, Ask Your Doctor for Exercise Advice 

Not all cancer patients are affected by treatment in the same way. Therefore, the ease of beginning an exercise regimen will vary based on how you feel after a prolonged period of inactivity. Because of this, it’s a good idea to talk with your oncologist about what he or she thinks you can handle. As a cancer survivor, make sure to ask your doctor questions such as:

  • Should I avoid certain exercises or activities?
  • What types of activities are safest and most beneficial for me?
  • Is strength training (lifting weights, yoga, sit-ups, push-ups) or cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, swimming, cycling) something I should focus on? 
  • Do I need to try to lose weight or gain it? If so, how much? 
  • How often should I exercise and how long should each session last?
  • Are there resources for group exercise or cancer survivor exercise classes?

What to Consider As a Cancer Survivor When Adding in Exercise

To reinforce the importance of nutrition and physical activity and how it can greatly improve cancer survivors’ long-term treatment outcomes and quality of life, the American Cancer Society gathered important information regarding best practices regarding nutrition and physical activities after cancer treatment from a group of nutrition, physical activity, and survivorship experts. A group of physicians published these findings in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Some notable findings regarding physical activity for cancer survivors include:

  • Avoid gyms and pools that are open to the public. These are areas where bacteria and viruses may be easily picked up for at least a few months after chemotherapy. This also applies to patients who have a low white blood cell count. 
  • How you feel will determine how much stamina you have. When fatigued, aim for at least 10 minutes of light exercise but avoid overdoing it or pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion. On days you feel better, exercise for a longer period of time. Some survivors even find relief from fatigue by exercising more often. 
  • Try to avoid chlorine exposure in a pool or too much sun from outdoor exercise if you have recently completed radiation therapy or have had a skin reaction to your radiation treatment. 
  • If you have nerve pain (neuropathy) or tingling in your hands or feet, you may feel off balance. In cases such as this, consider riding a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill where you can hold on. 

Tips for Transitioning to an Active Lifestyle

Even though you know exercising is necessary to stay healthy and reduce the risk of cancer recurring, committing to an exercise plan can be hard. To make it easier, try making it fun. Not only will you benefit from the physical activity, likely, you’ll also be more enthusiastic about it if you enjoy it. Especially in your early days as a cancer survivor, any activity is helpful! Walking your dog or with a friend, light stretching or yoga, taking a bike ride, even dancing around the living room with your grandchildren counts as exercise. According to The American Cancer Society, cancer survivors beginning a new exercise routine should start slowly, choose activities that are enjoyable, and aim to eventually exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.

To avoid overdoing it, break up your exercise time into smaller, more manageable intervals. Rather than going to the gym for 30 minutes one day, exercise at home for three, equally-effective 10-minute stints. Working in frequent, short exercise breaks is often more manageable than committing to one long session. Additionally, if your doctor has recommended that you incorporate both strength-building exercises (like lifting hand weights) and cardiovascular exercises (like walking or jogging) into your routine, you can alternate between the two types of exercise. Doing so helps your body recover more quickly between workouts while keeping you from getting bored or burnt out with your exercise routine. 

In this new stage of your cancer survivorship, learning to embrace exercise will help you feel better, thus allowing you to gain a greater appreciation for life. Eventually, exercise can once again become a natural, and even enjoyable part of your daily routine!





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