Exercising through Cancer

Lack of physical activity raises the risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It also raises the risk of being overweight or obese, further increasing the risk of developing one or more chronic illnesses.

Regular exercise can protect against cancer and alleviate many of the side effects of cancer and its treatments, including fatigue, loss of muscle mass and strength, pain, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. One preliminary study even suggests that engaging in exercise for several weeks after you finish chemotherapy may remodel your immune system, enabling it to become more effective in reducing the risk of cancer recurrence.

When you’re going through cancer treatment, you may think that exercise is too taxing, that it may be best just to relax so that your body can recover. Although relaxation is certainly important for recovery, so is exercise. And the sooner you start engaging in regular physical activity, the better you’ll feel and the fewer medications you’re likely to need — plus, you may lower your risk for certain complications.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends that cancer survivors be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day. In this section, we look at how you can be more active and fill you in on some forms of exercise you may want to incorporate into your regimen.

Before starting any exercise program, talk to your healthcare team. They’ll be able to direct you to the types of exercise and physical activities that are most appropriate for you depending on where you’re at on your cancer journey.

For example, if you’re receiving radiation treatment, they’ll likely tell you to avoid aquatic activities, and if your white blood cell count is low, you may be instructed to avoid exercising in a gym. There are many factors to consider, and only your healthcare team knows your specific situation, so it’s important to discuss your plans with them.

When you start any exercise program, start slowly and progress incrementally. Depending on your fitness and comfort level, you may need to start with a 10-minute walk around the block, slowly adding time until you reach the 30 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the AICR.

On the other hand, if you were a gym rat before your cancer diagnosis, you may have to lower the intensity of your workouts for a while.

If you feel too fatigued to engage in a full 30 minutes of exercise, try breaking up your routine into smaller sessions, like three 10-minute walks. And don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or more of exercise. As with clean eating, when you’re ready and capable, just pick it up again.

Above all, listen to your body. If you’re feeling sick, running a fever, or simply feel like a walking zombie, get some rest.

Try to find exercise programs designed specifically for cancer patients, particularly when you first start and especially if exercising is new to you. Your healthcare team may be able to point you in the right direction. These classes are better equipped to address your challenges and needs. Plus, you’ll meet others in the same boat, which can expand your support network.

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