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  • Writer's pictureSimon Watts

5 reasons why you should exercise during cancer treatment

Updated: Jan 16

Following the ‘rest is best’ mantra can mean missing out on the many benefits of exercise.

After the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis, it can be hard to know what’s the best approach to exercise and physical activity. If you’re currently active, you’ll want to continue as best you can, but your family and friends may understandably want to “wrap you in cotton wool” and advise you to rest as much as possible. But the ‘rest is best’ notion is outdated. There’s a growing body of real-world academic studies which demonstrate that physical activity – at the right level and intensity - can help you reap a whole host of benefits before, during and after treatment.

Here are just five of the main benefits:

1. Get fit for treatment

All cancer treatments will take a toll on your body. Whether it’s surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy alone or in combination, the side effects can be brutal and punishing. But taking part in ‘pre-hab’ physical activity prior to treatment can help – not only making you stronger to withstand treatment such as chemo and radiotherapy, but in helping to reduce the length of hospital stays after surgery.

2. Decreased fatigue

It might sound counter-intuitive, but exercise can help make you less fatigued. When I’m working with cancer clients, the goal of our sessions is to leave them feeling elated not exhausted. We also work on how to manage energy levels throughout the week – and that any form of activity or exercise (even if not at your ‘usual’ duration or intensity), should be seen as another deposit in the ‘savings account’ in the Bank of Fitness.

If you lived a very active lifestyle prior to diagnosis, it can be hard to adjust to not being able to work at the same intensity. On days when a client is feeling fatigued I’ll often teach new exercises or we’ll spend time working on balance skills – helping them to leave each session with a sense of accomplishment, rather than make negative comparisons to what they achieved in previous sessions. Progress isn’t linear, but there are so many benefits to exercise during treatment, that making it part of your regular routine can do you the power of good.

3. Reduce the impact of side effects

All of the current cancer treatments have side effects, including some which appear in the later stages or after treatment. Such as reduced range of movement (ROM) close to the site of surgery or radiotherapy. In these instances, regular mobility and stretching exercises will help increase ROM and recovery. That’s why doing prescribed rehab exercises is crucial, as is making mobility and stretching exercises a key part of each workout.

Where treatment leads to loss of muscle mass or bone density it’s important to incorporate resistance training to regain muscle and strength. Where weight gain is an unwanted side effect, some form of regular cardio activity should be incorporated to help with fat loss. But you don’t need to rush to your nearest HIIT class – low impact activities such as walking and gardening are effective forms of cardio, and they won’t leave you wiped out or at greater risk of injury.

4. Positive impacts on anxiety and depression

It is now widely recognised that exercise has a huge role to play in our mental wellbeing. For cancer patients the benefits of exercise on anxiety and depression are significant. The post-workout endorphin hit can be just the mood-booster needed and the effects can continue throughout the day. Exercise is also a positive distraction – clients often say our sessions are the one hour of the week when they aren’t focusing on their cancer. And it can also give back a sense of control – when you are in the whirlwind of appointments, consultations and treatments it can feel like you’re no longer in control of your own body. Exercise can give you back a sense of control, as you choose how and when to workout.

5. Help you get back to doing the things you love to do

Exercise can help you get back to doing the things you love to do, which you might have had to put on pause during treatment. And that can be a major motivator to exercise, even when achieving those goals can seem a long way off. From the long-distance fell-runner to the charity cyclist tackling some of Europe’s steepest peaks, I’ve seen how motivating it is when clients use their passions as a focus for getting their fitness back. Or setting a skill-based goal, which for Claire was working towards her black belt in kick-boxing, and she’s well on her way!

More reading

Click the links below to learn more about the benefits of exercise for cancer patients:

Any questions?

Contact me if you have any questions about exercise for cancer rehab and how I can help.

About the author

Simon Watts is a qualified personal trainer, cancer exercise specialist and reformer pilates instructor. He founded Yes You Can Fitness to help build peoples’ confidence to exercise by focusing on what each client can do, not what they can’t.

Simon has worked with people undergoing treatment for a range of cancers, including breast, prostate, skin, head and neck, and blood cancer. He works with each person to adjust sessions according to their treatment schedules, the individual side effects they experience and their energy levels on a given day.

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