Five tips for exercising during (and after) cancer treatment

If you think a cancer diagnosis automatically means you’ll need to get plenty of bed rest and avoid activity, think again. A host of medical studies show that exercise can not only reduce the chances of developing cancer, it’s also safe during and after cancer treatment, helping improve quality of life, increase energy levels, and decrease the fatigue that many patients report.

Here are some tips for starting your own fitness routine, even if you’re facing the challenge of cancer.

1. Start smart. Cancer patients and survivors alike should check with their doctor before beginning a fitness routine. While exercise offers a wealth of beneficial effects, certain medications or treatments may affect the amount of physical activity your physician recommends.

2. Aim for experience. Once your doctor says you’re good to go, work with a fitness expert who has experience helping cancer patients and survivors develop a workout routine. In 2009, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine developed a special cancer-exercise certification for fitness professionals, so consider finding a trainer who holds such accreditation.

3. Know where to go. If you’re an adult cancer survivor, you may want to try the YMCA, which has teamed with the Livestrong organization to offer a 12-week exercise program for survivors in select communities nationwide. In the Boston area, cancer patients and survivors can turn to Dana-Farber for a no-cost exercise consultation for men and women, as well as weekly fitness classes for female patients.

4. Do what feels right. Tailor your routine to fit your specific cancer diagnosis and alter it depending on your interests – and on how you might feel when undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. Gradually build your workout over time, and think about what types of exercise you most enjoy. For example, some people prefer to pursue a fitness routine on their own, while others may want the camaraderie of a group workout with other cancer patients and survivors.

5. Keep it up. Exercise can be immensely helpful after treatment, thanks to its ability to strengthen bones, reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, and help maintain a healthy weight. In fact, a new study in the British Medical Journal reveals that breast cancer patients who exercised regularly after treatment had a lower body mass index, improved weight and blood sugar control, and better lower limb strength, compared to those who didn’t exercise. The exercise participants also reported less depression and fatigue, and an improved quality of life.

The bottom line: Although the idea of pursuing an exercise routine during cancer treatment may sound daunting, it’s worth your time. Getting started doesn’t take much effort, and the benefits can be significant.

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