Exercise can help you maximize your health. Here’s how to get started.
by Julie Goodale
Lately, we hear more and more about how we should be active and keep moving throughout cancer treatments. Exercise may help us feel better and reduce fatigue, boost our immune system, and reduce our risk of recurrence for some cancers. However, in the middle of chemotherapy or radiation, a daily workout can seem like a daunting task. Figuring out how to begin and what’s an appropriate level of exercise can be difficult.
According to the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine, adults should get 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week. That’s 30 minutes on most days. But if you have always been inactive or have become inactive due to treatments, that can seem impossible. What’s often overlooked in the recommendations is that breaking the exercise up into shorter segments – three 10-minute sessions per day, for instance – is still effective.
Sometimes, however, even 10 minutes can be tough, especially when you are recovering from surgery or are weakened by treatments. Walking across the room or even getting up out of a chair may be a challenge. But that’s okay. It’s a starting point. Do what you can today, and begin building your strength slowly.
After my 10-hour surgery for breast cancer, simply walking to the next room was a major workout. When that got easier, I ventured outside; my big goal was the mailbox. Then my goal was to reach the mailbox faster. All it takes is just getting started – and patience.
Exercising doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym for an hour. Build exercise into your daily routine.
Goals help, too. I kept exercising during my treatments. Some days I struggled, but I did what I could. I was determined to return to all the activities I love, including climbing mountains. Just one year after finishing treatment, I climbed Mount Rainier, 14,410 feet, to raise funds for breast cancer research. Summit day was my two-year cancer anniversary.
If you want to begin exercising, work with your doctor to develop a fitness plan. Walking is one of the best ways to start. Begin at a moderate pace. You should be able to comfortably talk as you walk; you should not be out of breath. If you can recite all the lyrics to your favorite song, you can pick up the pace. But if you’re gasping for breath, slow down. Walk a comfortable distance, but remember you have to turn around and come back. (I add that reminder because it’s a mistake I’ve made a time or two.)
Over time, you can increase the intensity of your walking pace, the duration of the walk, or the number of days you walk, but not at the same time. Only increase one element at a time. Try increasing the length of time by 10 percent. Get used to that, and then increase the intensity – walk a little faster, but remember, you should still be able to talk in short sentences.
Finding time to exercise is often a major barrier. We all lead busy lives: we have families to feed, children to care for, work to do. Add in doctor’s visits, and it can seem like there’s no time for us to exercise, even if we want to.
However, exercising doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym for an hour. Build exercise into your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park two rows farther away at the grocery store. Or walk a couple of blocks before hailing a taxi. Lift the milk carton five times before putting it away (bicep curls). Hold a water bottle in each hand and raise your arms in front of you to shoulder-height (straight-arm raises) while watching TV. As you sit in your car waiting for your kids, draw your navel in toward your spine and hold it for several seconds (abdominal tuck). Or while on hold with the cable company, stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, bend your knees and lower yourself a few inches, hold, and rise back up (squats).
These steps may not seem like much, but they add up. No, you’re not going to look “ripped” or develop “six-pack” abs, but you may discover a powerful tool to help you feel better and have more energy as you fight this disease.
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Julie Goodale is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM) and a Cancer Exercise Specialist. She offers private training in the New York City and Hudson Valley areas and provides online fitness information and training through Life-Cise.com. Julie also leads fitness workshops and writes about fitness and cancer on her personal blog, FitnessforSurvivors.blogspot.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.