Lowering your performance expectations during cancer treatment can be a tough pill to swallow for many people, but it is also very necessary. Everyone’s experience will be different, but taking precautions based on treatment side effects and changes to the body is something that should be taken seriously. In order for exercise to serve you, rather than against you, during and after cancer treatment means adopting an approach that is kind to your body and to your mental health.
Dive into this information and expertise from fitness professionals and breast cancer survivors, Lindsy Matthews and Fitz Koehler, to learn more about how to approach exercise during and after cancer treatment.
Making the most of exercise during and after cancer treatment safely
- Progress slowly, no matter what your level of fitness was going into cancer treatment. It’ll help you avoid injury and keep you encouraged.
- Pick a safe environment. For example, when you’re immunocompromised (which is the case when going through cancer treatment), avoid large gyms where germs are easily spread.
- Listen to your body and pay attention to your energy level. On hard days, go slow and rest extra. On good days, you can push a little harder, but pull back as soon as you feel like it’s enough.
- Stay hydrated. Drink water. Drink more water.
- Nutrition is important. Help your body recover with nutrient dense foods, whole foods and balanced meals.
- Communicate with your healthcare team. Things change, so it’s important to stay on top of important health indicators like blood counts so you know what’s going on inside your body.
Fitz Koehler, one of the U.S.’ prominent fitness experts and race announcers, and went through breast cancer, joined us for a conversation about exercise and cancer. She highlights the importance of knowing that there are some quality reasons to just lie down. There is such a thing as too much exercise, which is why for her, months 2-5 during cancer treatment, she didn’t exercise at all, and any effort to do that would have been counterproductive. So, it’s about listening to your body and knowing what it needs. Before and after this time, Fitz describes being able to get up and do something, and her tip for moving during cancer treatment is: move gently with water.
That’s right. Stretching in the shower. Muscles become tight from lying and sitting, so stretching in the water and warmth eases that tightness. Another way to help ease pressure on the body is exercising in water, whether that means stretching in the pool or moving your arms lightly through water.
Another great way to exercise is to walk, however short or fast or slow or long. Fitz mentions the power of intentionality in our podcast episode with her. Intentionally moving your body by going on a walk or swimming or dancing is different than using the rationale of the fact that you stay active through cleaning or cooking or household chores. The intentionality of doing exercise, however light, whenever you’re ready to, helps you challenge yourself, feel like you’re doing something for yourself, and start achieving goals.
The benefits of exercise during cancer
If you are able to exercise, the overall benefits of exercise typically outweigh the fact that exercise can be harder during cancer treatment. It is something that can be a huge ally on your path to recovery. Exercise is also shown to help with the following:
- Reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.
- Improve sleep.
- Lower your chances of physical side effects like fatigue, neuropathy, lymphedema, osteoporosis and nausea.
- Keep yourself mobile and independent.
- Reduce fall injuries and improve your balance.
- Prevent muscle loss and build strength.
- Decrease the amount of time you need to stay in the hospital.
- Prevent other chronic diseases, and reduce the risk of other cancers.
- Improve the overall quality of your life during and after cancer treatment.
Exercise and mental health
Clearly, there are a lot of benefits. But above all, it helps us feel more like ourselves and improve our mental health. How? It can give you a better sense of control in a wildly frustrating and uncontrollable life circumstance, and empower you to take some power back. Listen to your mind and body, and do what you can to give yourself what you need. Physical activity is a great way to make this all happen.
In order for exercise to improve your mental health, it’s important to remember that exercise, especially during and after cancer treatment, is not about accomplishing X, Y, or Z. If you’ve showed up for yourself, whether that’s walking or swimming or at the gym, you’ve already won – showing up for yourself is what matters. After cancer treatment or surgery, your body has gone through shock and starting to exercise means building back its capacity, not starting where you left off. Try not to compare yourself – to what you could do before cancer or anybody else – and be proud of what you can do today, having gone through cancer treatment and getting back on your feet. Fitz recalls that, because she is a fitness pro, she went back as gently as possible, going through the motions, and was so happy to be back exercising.
“I knew that I was moving in the right direction. Cancer patients, go easy on yourself. This is an unbearably difficult time. Walk in there with your bald head up high. If you’re in the process of fighting for your life or just got done with it, if you’re at the gym or going for a walk with the dog, celebrate that.”Fitz Koehler, Fitness Expert and Race Announcer
Physical activity promotes emotional health and even bright and positive people end up needing help with their mental health and wellbeing when going through cancer. Every part of your body is affected by cancer treatment which causes suffering, pain, and stress, which was intense. But going on a walk in nature or feeling the water in the pool can help ease those moments, gain perspective, and improve mental health and wellbeing. Being outdoors and getting fresh air is productive and helps move you in the right direction, physically and mentally.
4 easy exercises you can do from home
- Sit down & stand up – be intentional, and use any piece of furniture.
- Standing leg lifts – Swing and lift your leg out to the side, balancing on the other.
- Triceps dips – use a chair, sofa or stairs. Start small, then go bigger.
- Wall push ups – Stand leaning against a wall and do a push up.
There are four specific areas that are important, regardless of what you’re going through: strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. Move slowly and constructively towards those areas.
Strength could mean bridges on the floor or bicep curls with soup cans – it doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do what you can to improve your wellbeing. Flexibility can be done in the shower or in bed. Stand on one foot while brushing your teeth for balance. Use those small windows of opportunity to help your physical wellbeing and mental health when going through cancer.
Remember, on any given day doing any given thing, we would always choose to be stronger rather than weaker. Oftentimes when we think about strength, we think about our physical muscles. But, it’s important to have a strong heart and strong lungs. If you go into any situation, whether it be cancer or COVID-19 or get into an accident, if you start off as a strong, capable person, you are far more likely to recover, rehabilitate, rebound faster than someone who got into that situation weak and sickly. Strength always matters. We never get sick and wish we had gone into the experience weaker.
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The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health providers for questions regarding a medical condition, especially during the active period of Corona / Covid19. Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor, 112 or 911 immediately.