Exercise after cancer

According to the Cancer Council Australia, in 2013 there were 774,700 people, or about 3.6% of the total population, have previously been diagnosed with cancer.

For the majority of survivors, fitness and a focus on healthy living becomes a big priority moving forward. And so it should, because the benefits of physical activity for cancer survivors are becoming more apparent. 

“Exercise after cancer treatment can improve your overall wellbeing, mental health and quality of life,” says Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO, Cancer Council Australia.
“It can help you manage some of the side-effects of treatment and speed up your return to normal activities. There’s also evidence to suggest that exercise can help reduce your risk of cancer reoccurrence.”

So, what are the key things we need to know?

When to start

People living with cancer or who are recovering from cancer should be as physically active as their abilities and condition allow.
 
“You don’t necessarily have to wait until after treatment to start exercising,” says Aranda. “There’s lots of research showing that exercise can be beneficial for those currently in treatment as well.”
 
Aranda says that these benefits can include improved treatment outcomes, help with symptoms, strength building and help with maintaining a good quality of life.  
She also notes that some studies show it may help improve the effectiveness of treatment and improve mental health.
 
“Before you start exercising, just be sure to talk to your doctor or oncologist about precautions you should take,” she advises. 

Frequency

A mix of moderate intensity exercise and resistance training is ideal to get all the benefits of exercise.

“Adults should aim for at least 2. 5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week and 2–3 sessions of strength training,” says Aranda.

However, if you’ve just completed cancer treatment, this might be ambitious.  So, instead, Aranda suggests using this as a good goal to work up to steadily. 

“Some days may be harder than others, but even a few minutes of light exercise is better than no exercise at all,” she says. 

 “Taking the dog for a walk or going for a leisurely swim is enough to get your heart rate up.”
lady walking dog

Planning your exercise 

Before commencing exercise Aranda advises individuals to speak to their doctor and an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist for recommendations tailored to their individual medical situation. You can use an app like Thrivor to help arrange these appointments and add exercise into your schedule.
 
“This is particularly important for those who have or have had bone cancer, or those who are suffering with any persistent side effects of treatment,” she says. 
 
“It’s also a good idea to have two exercise plans – one for your good days, and one for those days where you’re experiencing side effects and need to take it easier.” 
 
On this point, Aranda notes that it’s important not to go too hard at first. 
 
“Start any new exercise program slowly and increase gradually,” she says. “You may get sore muscles after your first few sessions, but this should go away in a few days.”
 
If any pain persists, Aranda says to stop and see your doctor.

Things to be aware of

As a final note, Aranda advises to stop exercising immediately and call 000 if you experience any of the following:
  • pain or pressure in your chest or pain down your arms
  • severe shortness of breath
  • dizziness or fainting
  • irregular or unusually rapid heartbeat
  • nausea/vomiting 
  • extreme weakness or fatigue.

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