Why is exercise so helpful after cancer, and how can you start today?

So treatment is finished, or almost, and somehow people seem to think that you're over the worst. Those around you - and you yourself - might be expecting to pick up life where you left off before diagnosis. For many people though, cancer treatment can leave behind a host of health issues - some short term others lasting much longer.

What it feels like to have had it

As many as 60% of people who've had cancer report unmet physical and psychological needs afterwards: depression, fatigue, anxiety, excessive weight loss or gain, pain, reduced bone density, body image problems, nerve damage, swelling and lymphaodema, blood clots, hot flushes and night sweats. There is now evidence to show that exercise can help manage all of these.

Beyond the common side effects, there are also conditions specific to some cancer types that also are improved by exercise. Those at risk of osteopenia or osteoporosis can help preserve their bone density by doing weight bearing activities such as walking and running.

After breast cancer surgery many experience issues with lymphaodema. There is specific evidence that exercise, when performed with good technique, can help to restore upper body mobility and strength, and help prevent and manage lymphaodema. 

Loss of muscle mass can occur after a period of inactivity, and this can be exacerbated by hormone treatment in men with prostate cancer. It can be the reason who everyday functions, like climbing the stairs or getting onto a bus, can feel like really really hard work. Weight training –with an appropriate programme and good technique – can be used to help rebuild strength.

There's also the big picture. 

Exercise can save cancer survivors’ lives. Evidence shows that it can reduce cancer mortality by up to 40%. Exercise has been shown to help reduce the risk of it coming back, and can reduce disease progression in those who still have it.

Contrary to traditional views, rest is not best, even for those going through cancer diagnosis and treatment - recovery is actually often faster in those that remain active during treatment.

After treatment cancer patients increasingly are being advised to avoid inactivity, but it’s hard to know where to start. Even cancer patients that were active before their illness often find that they're unsure how they could and should exercise in the future.

It’ll help to sort your head out

There are many psychological advantages from taking regular exercise – it helps with depression and anxiety. Physical activity can restore appetite and promote good sleep. Exercising outdoors can add a further beneficial dimension and there’s evidence to support choosing ‘green exercise’ over a trip to the gym. Exercise produces endorphins, which will leave you with a happy glow.

Yes, that’s all very well, but I’m exhausted

Fatigue in cancer survivors is significant – up to 95% report it. It’s difficult to motivate yourself to exercise when you’re drained, even though it’ll inevitably make you feel better.

The trick is to start with little and often and not let the need to exercise become overwhelming. Be regular – you can always take it easy. Work up until you can be out of breath and warm, for 30 minutes. The best evidence for exercise overcoming fatigue is to work at 70% of your maximum heart rate.


How to start – five things you can do now

1.    The daily constitutional. Try to build habits that you will be able to maintain in the long term, such as a daily walk to collect a newspaper. Take the stairs rather than the lift, avoid using the car. Walk a neighbour’s dog.

2.    Get out of puff. Do something you enjoy, whether it’s walking, jogging, dancing, and do it so that you’re lightly out of breath, but can still hold a conversation.

3.    Have plans in place for what to do on a low day. Go out for a walk somewhere that you love. Or go out with a group for a bit or moral support. If you’re feeling weak, use walking poles.

4.    Do resistance training to build muscular strength. This can help with the everyday (such as getting up the stairs) as well as more athletic activities. Do learn good technique from a fitness professional so you train safely and effectively.

5.    Try Nordic walking. It ticks every box for people trying to be more active after cancer. Find a class here www.nordicwalking.uk