Get Your Exercise Program on Track

by Howard Stidwill, PhD

Wellness image

Ready, Set, Go! Don’t wait to feel better to get better. Many of the benefits of exercise are delayed because people wait until they feel better before beginning exercise. Start exercising now. It may improve how you feel.

Exercise has long been seen as instrumental in the recovery of cardiac patients, and it is increasingly playing an important role for people undergoing cancer treatment. But before we delve in, we should first look at what is meant by exercise and outline the various forms it can take.

Exercise can be recreational in nature, such as bowling or golf, or it may be more functional, such as housework. It may be an individual pursuit, such as walking on a treadmill, or it can be done in a group setting, such as a yoga class. Exercise may also be more programmatic in nature and used prescriptively to address any functional loss that may have occurred due to cancer or its treatment. All forms of exercise incorporate movement to varying degrees. And while they are all important, we will primarily focus on the rehabilitative or therapeutic aspect of exercise.

Benefits
The benefits of a rehabilitative or therapeutic exercise program are highly specific to your type of cancer, stage of cancer, treatment strategy, and recovery progress, as well as the goals set out by you, your doctor, and the healthcare professional who is overseeing the exercise program. To best meet your needs, the exercise prescription should be physician-approved and individualized. Accordingly, there is no one standard prescription for all cancer types and treatment strategies. Depending on the type of cancer and cancer treatment, exercise prescriptions may include Kegel exercises for men with prostate cancer, movements to increase flexibility in women with breast cancer, breathing exercises for people with lung cancer, balance and coordination exercises for brain cancer survivors, and strength training for people who have undergone a bone marrow transplant.

Your fitness plan should be incremental. Take small steps to reach a major goal.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Howard Stidwill

Psychological benefits of this type of exercise program include a focus on wellness rather than the disease, an increased sense of control, and possible reductions in anxiety and depression. Moreover, all rehabilitative or therapeutic exercise programs should address any cancer-related functional loss, either mental or physical, and should aim to improve your ability to perform activities of daily living.

The Next Step
A rehabilitative or therapeutic exercise program is time-limited, is done under the guidance of a healthcare professional, and has clearly defined goals. Upon completion, you may want to continue many of the exercises at home or a at fitness facility. However, integrating exercise into your life on a regular basis involves complex behavioral change, and like most New Year’s resolutions, it can be difficult to maintain.

Here are some tips to help you implement and adhere to a fitness program on a regular and permanent basis:

  • If you are continuing a program, make sure your exercise plan is specific. Simply trying to “get in shape” will not last.
  • Exercise in a setting that will support the new behavior.
  • Many people find group exercise beneficial, as it can function as both an exercise class and a support group.
  • Your fitness plan should be incremental. Take small steps to reach a major goal.
  • Do not expect linear improvements. The ups and downs of any exercise program may be more pronounced for those who are continuing their treatments.
  • Try to incorporate recreational exercise into your lifestyle. All types of exercise count, and if you don’t enjoy exercising, you probably won’t do it.
  • Don’t wait to feel better to get better. Many of the benefits of exercise are delayed because people wait until they feel better before beginning exercise. Start exercising now. It may improve how you feel. However, you must pace yourself by not taking on too much at once. When overloaded by the demands of the cancer experience, it’s OK to take time off. Listen to your body.

While it’s no cure, appropriate exercise provides benefits for those who want to take control of their recovery process. Talk to your doctor about beginning an exercise program that will work for you.

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Dr. Howard Stidwill is president of InnerStrength Rehabilitation Services for Cancer Patients, Inc., which provides on-site and online tutorials for cancer rehabilitation and The Exercise Mentor series consisting of illustrated manuals of rehabilitative exercises across the cancer spectrum. For more information, visit www.innerstrengthrehab.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2010.