After a cancer diagnosis, some people decide to make big changes to their lifestyle. Others take a more gradual approach. You will find the way forward that is right for you.
Before taking part in any exercise program, either during or soon after your treatment, it is important to talk with your oncologist or general practitioner (GP) about any precautions you should take.
If it has been a while since you have been active or your fitness level is low, start slowly and build up gradually. For example, you might start by doing 5–10 minutes of walking three days per week, and add a bit more every week until you have worked your way up to 30 minutes of walking five days per week.
You don’t need expensive equipment or special clothing to exercise, but appropriate shoes are vital. A podiatrist or reputable shoe shop can recommend shoes that will help you avoid injury. Wear loose, comfortable clothes, such as shorts and a T-shirt, when you are exercising. Other equipment, such as heart rate monitors and home-gym systems, can be useful but are not necessary.
If you are exercising outside, remember to be SunSmart: slip on sun-protective clothing, slop on SPF 30+ sunscreen, slap on a broad-brimmed hat, seek shade, and slide on some sunglasses. By law, cyclists also need to wear an approved safety helmet.
Starting an exercise program can feel overwhelming. You may have lots of questions. It is important to realise that personal trainers and exercise scientists are trained to work with people who do not have any major health issues. People affected by cancer should see an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist.
Also called Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs), these allied health professionals have completed at least a four-year university degree. They concentrate on using exercise as medicine to help with injury and chronic disease management.
These are also allied health professionals who have completed at least a four-year university degree. They often concentrate on preventing and treating injuries using a variety of treatment methods, including exercise, massage, and joint manipulation.
Medicare or your private health fund may provide limited cover for visits to an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist. Ask your GP for a referral to an exercise professional, or visit the Exercise & Sports Science Australia website or the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
Your exercise professional can work with you and your doctor to develop an exercise program tailored for you. Many structured exercise programs offered at venues such as gyms will ask you for a medical clearance before starting.
Choosing an exercise program
Physical activity need not be costly or inconvenient. The exercise program that is right for you will depend on your current fitness level, what you want to do, and what your doctor says is safe for you. If you enjoy an activity, you are more likely to stick with it. To stay motivated, you could ask a friend or family member to join you.
Exercise at home and outdoors
Home-based exercise and outdoor exercise are excellent ways to include physical activity in your daily routine. You can try aerobic activities such as walking, cycling or swimming, along with some strength-training exercises. If you haven’t exercised much before or are unsure about what you can safely do, talk to your GP about a referral to an exercise professional.
Attend a group exercise program
Many gyms and fitness centres run group exercise programs. When joining, let your gym know that you have cancer, and ask if they have someone who can help to ensure that the exercise program is right for you. Ideally, an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist will conduct an initial consultation and functional assessment so that the program can be tailored for your condition.
You can search for an accredited exercise physiologist (AEP) by name, location or specialty at Exercise & Sports Science Australia’s website, or for a physiotherapist at the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s website. To find an appropriate group exercise program, ask your GP for a referral or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Mix it up
You might choose a mix of exercising at home or outdoors and attending a group program. The structure and safety of a supervised program can be a great place to start, while your own activities can keep things interesting. Another option is to join a sporting club. Belonging to a group provides a social outlet as well as physical benefits, and often helps with motivation.
Some people are motivated by recording their physical activity and tracking their progress. There are a number of ways to do this:
Record every day’s physical activity in a paper diary or calendar. List the activity type, intensity and duration.
Websites such as myfitnesspal.com allow you to record your food intake and exercise sessions for free.
Free smartphone apps such as Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal track your movement if you keep your phone on you while you are exercising, or you can record your activity later.
Also called wearables, devices such as those from Fitbit and Jawbone are worn like a watch. They can track your activity and transfer the data to your smartphone or computer.
Telephone support program
Cancer Council Victoria provides telephone health coaching for people who have completed cancer treatment – call 13 11 20 to find out more.
What should I eat?
Eating well means giving your body the food it needs to keep working properly. Cancer and its treatment place extra demands on your body, so eating well is more important than ever.
There is no special eating plan that can cure cancer and, in most cases, there are no special foods or food groups to eat or avoid if you have cancer. For most people living with cancer, the best approach is to eat a wide variety of foods from each of the food groups every day. It is also important to stay hydrated during and after exercise. Have a water bottle nearby when you are exercising and take regular small sips.
For morme information see Nutrition and Cancer booklet or call Cancer Council 13 11 20
To help avoid injury, it is important to begin each exercise session with a warm-up and finish with a cool-down.
The aim of warm-up activities is to make your muscles warm and ready to work, and to raise your heart rate slightly. This prepares your body for your exercise session.
A warm-up should include 5–10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic work mixed with some light stretching. Walking outside or using indoor equipment are good warm-up activities. Before strength training, it is a good idea to use light weights in your warm-up.
Training is the part of an exercise program when the work is done. Different types of training have specific effects on your body. A well-rounded weekly exercise program should include a variety of activities from the three types of exercise:
- aerobic exercises – these raise your heart rate during the activity and improve heart and lung fitness
- strength-training exercises – also known as resistance or weight-training exercises, these use weights (including your own body weight) or a form of resistance to strengthen your muscles
- flexibility exercises – these use stretching to lengthen muscles and tendons.
It is also important to exercise your pelvic floor muscles several times a day, particularly if you have bladder or bowel issues, such as leaking or incontinence.
The cool-down allows your heart rate and blood pressure to gently return to normal. Also, a slow cool-down helps your body and muscles lose the heat gained during the activity.
A cool-down should involve 5–10 minutes of relaxed activity and/or light stretching.
If you have just finished an aerobic exercise session, slow walking or cycling is the best way to cool down. If you have done strength training, cool down with light stretching.
These diagrams show the major muscle groups of the human body. Aerobic exercise focuses on improving your heart and lung fitness, but also works many of your body’s muscles. Strength-training and flexibility exercises both focus on the muscles, with individual exercises usually targeting specific muscle groups.
The exercises in this section cover a range of muscle groups. An exercise professional can help you plan a weekly program that covers all the muscle groups and concentrates on any areas that need particular attention.
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Sandi Hayes, Senior Research Fellow, ihop Research Group, School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, QLD; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA, SA; Chris Pidd, Consumer; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA, WA; Kellie Toohey, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, University of Canberra, ACT.