8 Steps to Starting Exercise After Cancer Treatment

Carol Michaels
September 29, 2016
Carol Michaels, MBA, ACE, ACSM

Carol Michaels, MBA, ACE, ACSM, is the founder of Recovery Fitness®, a nationally recognized exercise program designed to help cancer patients recover from surgery and treatments. She is an award-winning exercise specialist, author, presenter, and consultant. She received her degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Carol has produced DVDs and created the Cancer Specialist Recovery course in partnership with the National Federation of Professional Trainers. Her book, Exercises for Cancer Survivors, is designed to help anyone undergoing cancer surgery or treatments.

When is a good time to start exercising after cancer treatment? Many doctors now say as soon as possible.

How do you start exercising? Very carefully. share on twitter 

An exercise program can help reduce treatment side effects such as fatigue, neuropathy, decreased range of motion, weakness, lymphedema, and depression. In addition, numerous studies have confirmed that exercise can help reduce cancer risk. A study in the May 2016 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine found that increased physical activity is associated with a lower risk of 13 types of cancers. But before you add exercise to your recovery plan, follow these tips to stay safe and successful:

  1. Talk with your doctor about treatment side effects. While you likely talked about potential side effects before and during treatment, it’s important to have the conversation after treatment, too. Knowing this information can help shape your exercise plan to your unique needs. For example, some medications may make your joints or muscles sore. Others can affect your balance or increase dehydration risk. If you had surgery, ask which muscles and lymph nodes were affected. If you’re at risk for lymphedema, an abnormal buildup of fluid in soft tissue, it’s a good idea to meet with a lymphedema therapist. The therapist can guide your exercise plan and monitor your body for the condition.  

  2. Set clear goals. It’s helpful to have specific, achievable short-term and long-term exercise goals. You may want to lose weight and increase your muscle mass. You may want to have more range of motion or improve your mood. No matter what goals you set, you can adjust them to reflect changes in your health, work, and family life. 

  3. Exercise when your energy levels are high. Your pain and fatigue levels can change from day to day or even from hour to hour. Track your energy level throughout the day to find your best time to exercise. For example, if you usually have more energy in the afternoon, that’s when you should exercise.

  4. Keep your routine flexible. Rule #1 when it comes to exercise is to listen to your body. Don’t feel like you need to follow a strict exercise schedule. While consistency is important, you may need to adjust your routine or certain exercises as you work through physical or emotional side effects.

  5. Be patient. Each person is unique and heals differently. Your recovery speed depends on your pre-treatment fitness level and the type of treatments you had. If you’re new to exercise, don’t rush. Slowly add an activity you feel comfortable doing. As you feel better, you can increase the level of that activity or add another one.

  6. Choose to walk. If possible, try to make walking a part of your exercise plan. Walking, even if it’s just in your house to start, can help you regain strength. Start with short walks and go a little farther each time. Increase how often you walk as you slowly increase the distance. Finding a walking buddy can help keep you motivated. Just 15 minutes a day can improve your energy level and mood.

  7. Check in with your doctor. Your health and recovery process is always changing. It’s important to have your doctor monitor your blood count, muscle and joint pain, nausea, and fatigue. You may also have lingering health concerns that a physical therapist or lymphedema therapist needs to evaluate.

  8. Ask for help. In general, an exercise routine should start with relaxation breathing, stretching, aerobic exercise and strength training, including balance exercises. Not sure where to start? Ask your physician or other specialist for recommendations of qualified exercise providers who can design a program for your unique situation and fitness level.