Getting active again

Physical exercise can help improve your physical and emotional wellbeing after cancer treatment.

After undergoing cancer treatment, it’s natural to be less physically active. A journey through cancer is likely to leave you weaker and more easily tired out, and the side effects of treatment may make physical activity more challenging.

As a result, you can become what doctors call “deconditioned”.  It basically means you will feel more tired, weak and short of breath. Some of you may have lost a considerable amount of weight while others may have put on weight. Regardless, a certain amount of activity is still good to help maintain some lean muscle mass and to provide a greater sense of emotional wellbeing.

It’s often easy to spiral into a slump but you can recover from it by being and staying active. Physical activity and exercise will not only help combat the symptoms, but can also improve your emotional wellbeing and reduce the risks of other health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis. It can also increase your energy level and stamina, improve muscle strength, balance and joint flexibility.

All these benefits may enable you to go back to doing the things that you used to enjoy before cancer. In fact, research shows that physical exercise can not only improve your quality of life during and after cancer treatment, but also lower the risk of cancer recurrence and improve the rates of survival.

Check before you start

However, before you start any physical activity or embark on an exercise programme, talk to your doctor first. Your post-treatment condition can determine when you should – or should not – resume physical activity.

Your doctor may also refer you to a physiotherapist, who will help to design an individualised exercise programme that will ensure that you exercise safely.

This programme may depend on how active or fit you were before you had cancer:

  • If you had a sedentary lifestyle before you had cancer, start with low-intensity activities such as light stretches, range-of-motion exercises and short walks, and increase the duration and intensity of these activities gradually.
  • If you were active before cancer, resume exercise at a lower intensity and for shorter durations.
  • If you are older and/or have bone metastases, osteoporosis or significant impairments such as arthritis or peripheral neuropathy, take extra care to reduce the risk of falls or injuries.

What you should and shouldn’t do

In general, you can try to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activities per week (such as walking, leisure cycling, dancing or yoga), or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities per week (such as jogging, running, fast cycling, circuit training, aerobic dancing or swimming).

If you are affected by some of these conditions, however, you should take it slow:

  • If you have severe anaemia: Delay exercise other than daily living activities such as personal hygiene and grooming, getting dressed, eating and drinking.
  • If you have compromised immune functions: Avoid public gyms or public pools until your white blood cell counts return to safe levels. Ask your doctor when it’s safe to resume exercise in public areas.
  • If you’re undergoing radiation: Avoid exposing irradiated skin to chlorine.
  • If you have bone-related cancers:  Avoid stressing or putting weight on affected limbs until your doctor says it’s okay.
  • If you have significant nerve damage which results in balance problems: Start exercising on a stationary bicycle rather than a treadmill.
  • If you experience severe fatigue and are unable to keep to an exercise programme: Start with 10 minutes of light-intensity exercise such as slow walking.

… And when you should go slow

While it is generally safe to continue your daily activities while you’re undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, you may find yourself affected by fatigue, a common side effect of cancer treatment. But you can make simple changes and minor adaptations to reduce your fatigue level, so that you can do more.

1 Avoid rushing

When doing a task, slow down your pace to reduce the energy you use.

2 Take breaks

Schedule frequent rest breaks and stop working when you feel exhausted.

3 Understand body mechanics

To reduce the amount of energy you need to achieve a task, use the strongest muscle group. For example, use your knees and keep the object close to your body when lifting something. And place a chair beside you should you need any support.

4 Ask for help

If you feel you are not up to a task, get help. Don’t try to do everything by yourself.

5 Start slow

Begin with slow-paced, low-level tasks before gradually resuming more demanding tasks.

6 Prepare well

Set up proper working conditions before you start a task. For example, get a seat so you can sit whenever possible, set up a comfortable work height, and collect all necessary tools and equipment beforehand so you don’t need to keep going back and forth.

7 Avoid unnecessary motions

Use trolleys to move objects around rather than lift or carry them. Clean up as you go along so you don’t have to do a major clean-up after the task is done. Organise your tasks to avoid repeating tasks unnecessarily.



Tags: cancer & exercise, cancer tips, common side effects of cancer treatment, fatigue, managing emotions, weight management