Unlock the Healing Power of Movement
by Julie Dial, MA, CES
After a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal to feel as if you’ve been released into a “black hole” of fear and confusion. You may have questions about your well-being and your future, as well as how you can regain control of your life. One place to start is with physical activity. Maintaining an active lifestyle, in combination with getting proper nutrition and addressing your psychosocial needs, is important for easing the transition into your “new normal” way of life.
Studies have shown that exercise is safe, feasible, and beneficial to cancer survivors’ quality of life at any stage of treatment. In fact, one of the most important recommendations from experts is to avoid inactivity. Weight gain, weight loss, fatigue, and muscle loss are all potential long-term side effects from treatment; however, incorporating light exercise into your normal routine can help mitigate these issues. Additionally, cardiovascular and lower-body exercises have been shown to improve stamina, balance, and strength.
Before beginning any exercise program, you should get clearance from your healthcare provider, along with a set of precautions, guidelines, and follow-up documentation. If available, work with a proactive comprehensive healthcare team, including a cancer exercise specialist and a behavioral specialist who can help you balance your home and work life during treatment. Read on for strategies to help you unlock the healing power of movement.
When weather permits, take a walk outside to gain the added benefits the great outdoors can have on your mental health.
Make a list of your short-term exercise goals, and then build up to long-term goals. Make sure your goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time specific. For example, your goal might be to wear your pedometer and walk outdoors for 30 minutes three times per week for two weeks.
When you begin an exercise program, always proceed in a slow, progressive manner. Alternate short segments of exercise with periods of rest until you work up to the recommended 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity, five to seven days per week. If you were very active before your cancer diagnosis, slowly work your way back to your previous level of activity once your healthcare provider has cleared you to do so.
Walk It Out
Research has shown that walking for three and a half hours per week may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and improve response to therapy. Walking also may reduce fatigue, depression, and anxiety, while improving your functional status and your quality of life. To keep track of your progress, consider using a pedometer to count the steps you’ve taken, the number of miles you’ve walked, and the amount of calories you’ve burned. When weather permits, take a walk outside to gain the added benefits the great outdoors can have on your mental health.
Some cancer treatments may cause you to have difficulty balancing. Practice standing on one foot (using a chair or a wall for assistance if needed) to help improve your balance. Practicing standing up and sitting down in a chair is another way to test your balance while also improving your lower body strength.
Don’t Overdo It
Use a scale from 0 to 5 to determine your levels of pain and fatigue, with 0 being no fatigue or pain and 5 being a great deal of fatigue or pain. If your pain or fatigue is on the high end, take it easy. Normal home or work activities may have to be your only form of exercise for a while. Remember that deep breathing and light activity are better than doing nothing at all.
Staying active during cancer isn’t always easy, especially on low-energy days, so it may be easier to engage in activities you enjoy. If you like to dance, turn on some music and get moving. Most importantly, have confidence in your capability to unlock the healing power of movement throughout your cancer experience and beyond.
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Julie Dial is a clinical applied exercise physiologist and certified cancer exercise specialist. She is part of the Cancer Survivorship Clinical Treatment Team at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2013.