Maintaining fitness while undergoing cancer treatment

Everybody talks about the importance of exercise but how can you, a cancer patient, find a routine that’s right for you? How do you find the right people to offer guidance? Of equal importance, how do you explain to friends and family members that — either for the long term or while in treatment — you can’t be as active as you were? And how do you adapt to the (temporary or permanent) changes without losing your sense of identity and worth?

Why you should exercise
Cancer treatments are debilitating. Research has shown that exercise can help to counter fatigue — oncology patients who exercise get less tired. They also feel better sooner, which can mean taking fewer prescriptions. That’s better for the organs, and it helps the body to heal. If you’re thinking about taking up gardening or swimming, ask for medical clearance; you want to be sure your immune system is up to the challenge. Before starting any exercise program, it’s wise to talk with your physician about setting sensible goals. The doctor may be happy to offer a referral to a personal trainer or physical therapist who works with people with cancer. If not, then you can find a good personal trainer on your own.

Picking a personal trainer
Ask about certification. In the United States, you will want to see credentials from one of three certifying bodies: The American College of Sports Medicine, the National Association of Sports Medicine, or the American Council on Exercise. All three require trainers to complete annual continuing education units.

Personal trainers with these credentials will maintain certification in CPR and first aid, and keep up with current knowledge. The National Association of Sports Medicine and the American College of Sports Medicine are on the leading edge of research in health and fitness. Personal trainers certified by these organizations and the American Council on Exercise have access to advanced courses, including ones in training people who have cancer or have survived it. Training is an intimate, collaborative act. If the trainer does not inspire trust and comfort, then find someone else to help you gain good health.

Patience is your greatest strength
This isn’t the time to train for a marathon or to set a personal best in weightlifting. It is a time to balance self-discipline with listening to your body and respecting its needs. If you can’t handle a straight 30 minutes of exercise, then break it up. Take a five-minute walk every hour. In six hours, you’ll have hit your half-hour goal, and you won’t have wiped yourself out.

Enlist companions. Tell an old running companion that you’ll join in for the cool-down walk at the end of his or her run. Invite a friend to take a walk in the park. Go for a stroll with elderly relatives. They’ll appreciate the company and you’ll have good reason to slow down.

Explore programs designed for people recovering from cancer. Hospitals, health clubs and community centers may offer safe, affordable options. Yoga, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais and pilates will give you a chance to stretch and breathe while you grow stronger and more confident. If you’re not feeling well, then take a day off.

Take care of your body — during and after treatment — and it will repay you with an easier recovery and a faster return to health.