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Get Active after Cancer

by Karen Basen-Engquist, PhD, MPH

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It’s easier to stick with an exercise program if you enjoy it.

Now that you’ve completed your cancer treatment, you may be wondering what you can do to stay healthy. For most cancer survivors, one answer to that question is exercise. Exercise can provide sig­nificant benefits to cancer survivors, including increased energy levels and improved quality of life. Additionally, studies have shown that breast and colon cancer survivors who are more active have a lower risk of cancer re­currence.

The American Cancer Society has published the following exercise recommendations for cancer survivors:

• Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible.
• Aim to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous Intensity aerobic exercise each week.
• Include strength-training exercises at least two days per week.

Before you begin any type of exercise program, talk to your doctor and find out whether there are any exercises or activities you should avoid. If you have physical limitations, it may be helpful to meet with a physical therapist or re­habilitation specialist. Once you have the go-ahead for exercise, the follow­ing tips will help get you started and keep you going.

Identify something to reward yourself with when you accomplish your fitness goals.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Karen Basen-Engquist

Choose activities you enjoy.
It’s easier to stick with an exercise program if you enjoy it. Like to dance? Register for a ballroom dance class. Enjoy the outdoors? Start walking or biking around your neigh­borhood. Even if you can’t imag­ine enjoying the exercise itself, try pairing it with other activities you do enjoy. Ask friends to join you so you can socialize while you exercise, or watch your favorite television show while you walk on the treadmill. If you’re planning a summer vacation, think about incorporating physical activity into your agenda, like going hiking in a state park or taking a walking tour of your destination city.

Start slowly.
Although 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week is recommended, if you haven’t exercised in a while, it’s better to start with a shorter amount of time and build up to the 150 minutes gradu­ally. Moderate intensity feels like a brisk walk. Your heart rate is elevated and you’re breathing faster than usual, but you’re not working so hard that you are worn out after a few minutes. During moderate intensity exercise, you should be able to talk but not sing. For strength-building exercise like weight training, you should start with low resistance or weight and build up gradually.

Break it up.
If you don’t have the time or energy for a full exercise ses­sion, divide it into shorter bouts. Three 10-minute exercise sessions are just as beneficial as one 30-minute session and may be easier to fit into your schedule.

Set specific and realistic short-term goals.
Setting short-term goals, such as making an effort to walk for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday this week, can help you build up to long-term goals, like walking in a 5K next fall.

Keep track of your physical activity.
Many people find that monitoring their exercise helps them stick to their exercise goals. This can be as simple as keeping track of the days you exercise on a calendar posted on your refrigerator. If you like high-tech tools, smartphone apps, websites, and fitness tracking bracelets can help you track your activity.

Don’t forget to reward yourself!
Identify something to reward yourself with when you accomplish your fitness goals. You could put off buying that new book you want or those new exer­cise clothes you’ve been eyeing until after you’ve achieved a certain goal. But your rewards don’t have to cost money. You could reward yourself by participating in an activity you enjoy or calling a friend to share the good news.

Set the stage for a healthy lifestyle.
Exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle; however, making lasting change in your life isn’t easy. There will be times when you reach your goals and other times when you fall short. It’s important to be persistent. If you don’t reach your exercise goal, don’t see it as a sign that you’ve failed. Examine your goals to make sure they are realistic, and then make a new plan that you can start the next day.

Whether you set out to walk for 10 minutes or for 50 minutes, simply making an exercise plan is one of the most important components of main­taining an exercise program. So find an exercise you enjoy, make a plan, and start moving!

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Dr. Karen Basen-Engquist is a professor in the department of behavioral science and director of the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, where she conducts research on the benefits of exercise and weight management for cancer survivors.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.