Exercise Recommendations for Cancer Survivors

Getting back to exercise may be the last thing on your mind after cancer treatment — but it may be the best thing for you.

Once, the common view was that patients in recovery should rest and avoid activity. Not anymore. The American Cancer Society recently released new guidelines that recommend both good nutrition and exercise for survivors to reduce the chance of recurrence and increase the chance for disease-free survival.

While this certainly sounds like a good idea, it can be a scary prospect for those who suffer from fatigue, depression or a loss of confidence from cancer surgery or treatment.

I know that after my breast cancer surgery, even walking on crowded streets or into a busy store was frightening, as I worried about getting bumped or jostled where my stitches were. But I did miss my fitness routine.

As soon as my doctor gave me permission to exercise, I headed to a “Renewal” water exercise class for breast cancer patients at the JCC in Manhattan as a way to ease back into moving again. The welcoming warm water and calming exercises left me feeling more comfortable in my body, and helped me heal physically, mentally and emotionally. Soon I was back to my old exercise habits— but five years later, I still attend these weekly classes.

The women there serve as a nurturing support group for me. We all chat about our medications, the occasional health scare and just life in general as survivors. It’s also a time of the week when I get to just “slow down to the speed of life,” as my teacher Teri says. I relax and let the water embrace me, while getting a workout, too.

For some people, cancer can actually kickstart some new habits, especially if they never exercised or focused on diet much before. As always, talk with your doctor about any changes you plan to make in your eating and exercising habits to keep excess weight off. Studies of several different cancers have found that being overweight after completing treatment was associated with shorter survival times and higher risk of cancer recurrence.

The best way for those not used to working out to start a healthy fitness program is to check out the gentle yoga or stretching classes many hospitals or cancer centers offer their patients. This is a good way to ensure that you are active safely and effectively, and get exercises specifically tailored to any new limitations you might have. For example, breast cancer patients may want to do certain exercises to strengthen their arms and reduce their chances of getting lymphedema.

If you don’t feel like leaving home just yet, check out the recommended exercises on the American Cancer Society website. There are numerous free specialty videos on YouTube, and there are also DVDs for sale, like those at www.strengthandcourage.net or www.thecancerspecialist.com.

If your energy levels are not up to what they once were, do not fear. Start slow and hopefully with time you will be able to do more and more. Set small, realistic goals so you will feel positive about your accomplishments. Every short walk you take and weight you lift will help improve muscle strength and balance, improve your general well being and help you thrive as a survivor.

The bottom line: get up and go!

What did you do to get back into a healthy routine after cancer surgery or treatment? What keeps you motivated? Let us know in the comments.