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One Foot in Front of the Other

Why You Should Keep Moving through Cancer

by Linda T. Gottlieb, MA, CPT, CET

Wellness image

You probably already know that exercise is an important part of staying healthy and can even help prevent disease. But what if you have cancer? What can exercise do for you?

Many people living with cancer are eager to learn new ways to support their health. But some buy in to the misconception that because they have cancer, they can’t exercise. While it’s true that in the past doctors instructed people with cancer to avoid physical activity in order to get more rest – and this may still be the case for someone who has recently had surgery or for whom exercise causes an unhealthy increase in heart rate, feelings of dizziness, or severe pain – research has shown that exercise is actually beneficial for many cancer survivors. In fact, the American Cancer Society now recommends that survivors adhere to the same exercise guidelines as the general population: a minimum of 150 minutes of cardiovascular activ­ity per week.

The Benefits
Studies consistently show three benefits of exercise: improved physical fitness, greater self-esteem and well-being, and decreased levels of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Because a cancer diagnosis and ensu­ing treatments can leave you feeling depressed, tired, and lethargic, this research is extremely encouraging.

Author of Article photo

Linda Gottlieb

Furthermore, exercise can provide you with a sense of control over your life, helping you feel like an active participant within your healthcare team. For many cancers, exercise has even been proven to help decrease the chance of recurrence.

Getting Started
Exercise doesn’t have to be a complicated activity. Simply walking to the mailbox, taking a stroll around the perimeter of your home, or walking up and down the stairs can be a terrific start. Take one step at a time (literally), and progress at your own pace. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else, especially the super-fit models and actors you see on TV or in magazines.

As you ease into an exercise routine, it might be helpful to record your prog­ress, thoughts, and feelings in a journal. This will provide a log of the posi­tive results your exercise efforts have returned, like improved sleep, decreased body fat, and a brighter view of your future. When you see how far you’ve come, your confidence will soar.

Before starting any exercise pro­gram, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possible risks. But in most cases, the benefits of exercise far exceed any possible risks for cancer survivors. Exercise might be just what you need to help you get back to an improved level of physical and psycho­logical functioning.

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American Cancer Society/American College of Sports Medicine cancer exercise trainer Linda Gottlieb is a fitness and wellness professional at Yale University working on a national clinical trial involving gynecological cancer survivors. She is the author of No Ifs, Ands, or Butts: How to Turn the Top 10 Exercise Excuses into Fitness Triumphs.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2014.