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Whatever Moves You

Tools for Getting Started with an Exercise Routine

by Laura Q. Rogers, MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM

Wellness image

Cancer and its treatment can feel like a physical battle wreaking havoc on your body. Fortunately, regular exercise can help to prevent or reverse some of the negative side effects you may be experiencing.

While the benefits of exercise may vary depending on each person’s cancer type and treatment regimen, there are some general guidelines most all cancer survivors can follow to start seeing ben­efits. The current recommendation is that survivors aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (such as a brisk walk) along with exer­cises that improve balance, flexibility, and muscle strength.

If regular exercise has never been your thing, don’t be discouraged. Just as you need the right tools for activities like cooking and gardening, you also need the right “tools” for getting started with an exercise routine.

Realistic Goals
Build your confidence by starting with a short-term goal that you know you can achieve. Record your exercise in a journal so you can track your progress. Choose an activity you enjoy, and invite family members and friends to exercise with you to boost the enjoyment you get from it and to help you stay on track. Mark appointments for exercise on your calendar, and try to incorporate a little more exercise into your schedule each week. Keep a log of how you spend your time during a typi­cal week; then decide which sedentary activities you can give up to make more time for exercise. Avoid sitting for long periods; get up and move around every hour you’re awake. Be creative about how you work physical activity into your schedule. Don’t forget to congratulate yourself when you make time for exer­cise and reach your goals.

Build your confidence by starting with a short-term goal that you know you can achieve.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Laura Rogers

A Positive Mindset
Replace your negative thoughts about exercise with positive ones. Think about the exercise benefits that are the most important for you, and about how you’ll feel when you attain them. Think of exercise as a mandatory part of your day-to-day life, similar to taking medication or brushing your teeth. If you are busy caring for your family, remind yourself that exer­cise can make you stronger and better able to care for your family, now and in the future. Once you have been exercis­ing regularly for a while, there is a good chance you will experience the benefits you’ve been hoping for, which will motivate you to continue.

A Doctor-Approved Fitness Program
If you are currently receiving cancer treatment, talk with your doctor about the safety of exercise. If your blood counts are low, avoid contact sports, skip out on activities that carry an increased risk of infection (such as swimming), and do not exercise beyond what you can do comfortably. If you’re fatigued, opt for frequent, short bouts of exercise rather than longer sessions done less frequently. Take advantage of your good days, but understand that you may not be able to do as much on difficult days. Listen to your body and adjust as necessary. The rigors of cancer treatment can re­duce your physical endurance, so don’t be discouraged if you can only do a little exercise at first.

Proper Equipment and Precautions
Be mindful of your general condition. Wear the proper clothing and shoes when exercising, and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Start slow and gradually increase length and duration of exercise. Talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program, especially if you had cancer treatment that weakened your heart or if you have a significant medical condition (such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease). If you have osteoporosis or cancer metastasis, avoid activities that involve high impact movements, sudden and extreme twisting, or an increased risk of falling. If you have lymphedema, wear a com­pression garment during weight lifting.

The benefits of exercise are far too great for most can­cer survivors to consider regular exercise an op­tional activity. The goal is to exercise at least 150 min­utes per week at a moderate intensity, but don’t be discour­aged if you are unable to meet this goal right away. Even one hour of physical activity per week is beneficial. Any exer­cise you can do is good for your health.

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Dr. Laura Rogers is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is also an internal medicine physician in UAB’s weight management program and does research on exercise adherence and benefits after cancer diagnosis.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.