Cancer and its treatments can cause physical changes which are difficult to deal with. Being more physically active can help you to cope with and recover from some of these changes. Whether you are used to physical activity or new to it, you often don’t know how to start to get active after your cancer treatments and what is safe for you to do. The good news is that physical activity is very safe and it can be done by anyone regardless of their current level of fitness.
Physical Activity/Exercise Has Lots Of Benefits:
- Reduces cancer-related fatigue
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Improves low mood and depression
- Improves bone health and helps prevent osteoporosis
- Improves heart health
- Builds muscle strength
- Helps maintain a healthy weight
- Lower your chances of developing other health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke, or even a new cancer
- For some cancers, including breast and bowel cancer, being active may also lower your risk of the cancer coming back
What Is Physical Activity/Exercise And How Much Should I Be Doing?
Physical activity is any movement using your muscles that helps improve or maintain your physical fitness. It can be as simple as going for a walk or doing the housework. You can even be doing simple exercises whilst sitting in your chair which help to improve your activity levels. The Department of Health has recommended that adults do at least 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity a week. Moderate intensity means that you should be breathing a little quicker and deeper than usual, you should be warm and your heart will be beating faster than normal, but not racing. It is not essential to do all this exercise in long periods. It can be broken down to 10 minute periods 3 times per day. It is better to try and exercise on at least 5 days of the week and include muscle strengthening on at least 2 days of the week.
There Are 3 Different Types Of Exercise
- Aerobic exercise – uses large muscle groups repetitively for a period of time. It involves raising the heart and breathing rate for example walking, running, cycling, dancing and swimming
- Strengthening exercise – making your muscles contract harder than usual against some form of resistance for example hand or ankle weights, resistance bands, press-ups, sit ups
- Flexibility exercise – stretching muscles and joints. Helps to prevent injury for example Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates
Being Safe Whilst Exercising
Being active has fewer risks than being inactive but it is important that you start doing a little exercise and then gradually build up the time and intensity that you exercise. Your cancer type, treatment or any other conditions you have may influence the type of activity that’s best for you. If you are in any doubt, get advice from your doctor.
The following conditions may affect the physical activity that’s right for you:
- Bone thinning (osteoporosis) or cancer affecting the bones – you should avoid high-impact physical activities such as running, jogging, football or hockey as there is more risk of falling and breaking a bone. Suitable exercises are walking, dancing, climbing stairs, swimming and resistance exercises. Balance and coordination exercises such as dance, exercise to music and Tai Chi are also suitable and can help reduce your risk of falling.
- Peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) – some chemotherapy drugs can damage the nerves, causing numbness or tingling in your hands or feet, muscle weakness or difficulty with balance or coordination. It’s important to avoid exercise where you could easily fall.
- Lymphodema – always wear a compression garment when you exercise and avoid doing lots of repetitive action with the affected limb. Swimming can be helpful and it is important to build up the amount of exercise involving your arm and leg gradually.
- Heart or lung problems – exercise is very beneficial if you suffer from heart and lung problems, however it is recommended that you check with your doctor before you start any exercise programme.
- Medicines to thin the blood – if you are taking any medicines to thin the blood you should avoid exercise that could result in bruising from a fall or a blow.
- Don’t exercise if you feel unwell or have symptoms that worry you
- Wear well-fitting shoes, such as trainers when you exercise
- Drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated
- Eat something healthy that includes carbohydrates about 2 hours before you start, and a healthy snack within 30 minutes of finishing
- Avoid uneven surfaces and activities that increase the risk of falling or hurting yourself.
- Stop if you are feeling dizzy, have chest pain, a racing heart, breathing problems or any other sudden symptoms
The most important thing to do when you are thinking about starting to exercise is to find an activity that you enjoy and fits in with your life. This could be playing with your children/ grandchildren, gardening, walking to the shops or dancing with friends.
Some Tips To Get Started
- Ask your GP to refer you to a structured exercise on referral programme at a local leisure centre
- Ask your GP or health professional to refer you for physiotherapy
- Join a walking group such as Walking for Health
- Try swimming, cycling, dancing or gardening
- Play a sport such as badminton, table tennis or bowls
- Walk or cycle to the shops, to see friends or to work
- Try stretching exercises such as yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates
It isn’t always easy to become active after cancer treatments so it is important to have clear goals to help stay motivated. Keep the goals small and achievable and gradually increase them as you improve. Keep a record of how active you’ve been, using an activity diary, so you can see your progress. Try and be active with other people such as family or friends, or join a club or group. Make sure the activities are fun and enjoyable and don’t become disheartened if you don’t achieve a planned goal. Think about why you weren’t able to achieve it and plan a new one. Talk to your GP or nurse specialist for more support. They can refer you to a specialist service like physiotherapy or exercise on referral.
Macmillan Move More Pack – includes a physical activity and cancer information booklet, advice about getting started and an activity diary
Macmillan Get Active Feel Good Exercise DVD and advice booklet – includes a DVD containing a simple exercise programme that you can follow in your home
Both accessible from www.macmillan.org.uk