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Exercise – Getting Started is Easier Than You Think!

by Nancy Campbell, MS

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When the American College of Sports Medicine published exercise guidelines for can­cer survivors in 2010, the take-home message was clear: exercise offers ben­efits for those with cancer – even those undergoing difficult treatments. In fact, exercise is one of the most important activities you can pursue to give your­self an extra boost during and after cancer treatment.

Numerous research studies have shown that rates of cancer recurrence are lower in survivors who are physically active on a regular basis. The studies so far have been observational, meaning that researchers asked survivors how much they exercise and then followed up with them to see if there was a relationship between exercise and cancer recurrence. Although this type of study can’t prove whether exercise prevents cancer recurrence (there could be other differences be­tween survivors who exercise and those who don’t, like healthier diets or lower weight), these studies do suggest that physical activity may have health benefits for survivors.

Don’t worry, though, being active doesn’t mean you need to start running marathons or training to climb Mount Everest. Adding exercise to your daily routine can be simple, especially if you focus on small steps to make your day more active.

Check with your doctor.
Before you start, talk with your healthcare providers to make sure your exercise plan won’t interfere with your treatment or recovery. For example, if you’ve had surgery, it may take some time for wounds to heal before you should start exercising. It’s particularly important to check with your doctor if you have other medical con­cerns, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, or heart disease.

Being active doesn’t mean you need to start running marathons or training to climb Mount Everest.

Author of Article photo

Nancy Campbell

Ease into a routine.
Fatigue is the most common barrier to starting or main­taining an exercise program during or after treatment. While it may seem counterintuitive to go for a walk when you feel exhausted, it really is the best thing you can do. Physical activity helps lower your stress, improve your sleep patterns, and elevate your mood. Some­thing as simple as walking briskly around the block can help you feel better both physically and emotionally. In the begin­ning, regularity is the key. Short bouts of physical activity on most days of the week are more beneficial than the oc­casional exhausting workout.

Get a pedometer.
Walking is great exercise, and using a pedometer can help you add extra steps into your day. A good pedometer should have a stride adjustment on it, which will increase the accuracy. Many smartphones now offer reliable pedometer apps that you can download free or for a small fee.

Keep track of your activity.
Use a journal to log your activity, including daily steps taken and duration of exer­cise. These journals don’t need to be fancy; the main goal is to increase your awareness of how active you’ve been and keep you motivated to achieve more. You may find it helpful to include a place for notes about how you felt that day, how much sleep you got, or any other relevant information.

Set goals.
Setting a target for what you want to achieve with your exercise plan can be incredibly motivating. For example, you might want to set a goal of walking 30 minutes a day or taking 10,000 steps in a single day. After you hit that goal, you can aim a bit higher. As you get into the habit of setting and achieving goals, your self-confidence will grow.

Consult an expert.
Consider turning to a fitness expert for help in elevating your fitness routine. It’s a good idea to find a fitness expert who has experience working with cancer survivors. The Amer­ican Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine now offer a certification for cancer exercise trainers, so consider finding a trainer who holds such accreditation. Or try your local YMCA, which has teamed with Live- strong to offer a 12-week exercise program for cancer survivors in com­munities nationwide. You may also be eligible for exercise-based clinical trials for cancer survivors. These can be a great way to pursue your exercise goals with guidance from exercise professionals.

No matter what path you decide to take, make sure it’s an active one. Al­though the idea of pursuing an exercise routine during or after cancer treatment may sound daunting, it’s worth your time. Getting started doesn’t take much effort, and the benefits can be significant.

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Nancy Campbell is an exercise physiologist who offers fitness consults and classes to can­cer survivors through Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Adult Survivorship Program.

To find exercise-based clinical trials, visit and enter exercise and cancer in the search box.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.