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Staying Fit While Fighting Cancer: Keep These Four Things in Mind

Cancer survivors will tell you, when so much of life feels beyond your control, that an exercise routine is something you can control that helps to improve your quality of life. But whether your goal is to get back to a favorite activity or to start exercising regularly for the first time, getting fit while fighting cancer comes with challenges. Laura Leach, MS, ES, coordinator for the Wolfe Foundation Cancer Wellness Program at OhioHealth McConnell Heart Health Center, offers a few helpful tips for cancer survivors who are looking to get active again.

Older person loading dishwasher with dirty dishes

1. Work around your fatigue

Cancer treatments can leave survivors feeling like they’re running on empty, but Leach says you can begin to chip away at fatigue if you focus on staying mobile. “I encourage people to start with some kind movement at regular intervals in the day, and try not to rest during the day for more than two hours at a time. It can be as simple as engaging in regular activities around the house,” says Leach. “Exercise doesn’t have to be working on a machine with sweat flying off you to be worthwhile. As we say, ‘Motion is lotion.’ Movement is therapeutic. Try small bouts of activity several times a day, instead of one long workout session. Stamina may be an issue in the beginning, but little bits of activity add up. If you focus on trying to do a little more each time, you’ll succeed.”

Strings with post-it notes clipped to them, notes have goals written on them with permanent marker

2. Set realistic goals

Leach says cancer treatments can take a toll on your body, so don’t launch into a workout routine with unrealistic goals that set you up for failure. “Any kind of movement should be your goal. Don’t set expectations of what you can (or can’t!) do ahead of time. Start slow and leave some energy in the tank, and take satisfaction in what you accomplish,” says Leach. “Most of the people we work with in the wellness program have been through treatment and are still experiencing after effects. They’re ready to move on with life, but their goals in the beginning are modest: They want to live at home as long as possible, or simply improve their quality of life. Whatever your goal is, it should be something that brings you back to your routine with excitement.”

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3. Enjoy the process of improving

“Success with exercise after cancer is about reconnecting with the passion that caused you to be active in the first place. It can be a big part of peoples’ identities,” says Leach. “People will ask me, ‘What’s the best exercise I can do?’ It’s the one that you enjoy doing.” Leach goes on to say that having a workout buddy can help you be successful. “Find someone to exercise with—a spouse, a friend—having a person with you can keep you accountable, challenge you and help you pass the time.”

Group practicing yoga and meditation in a studio

4. Redefine normal

The pull to regain the same level of activity you had before cancer can be strong, but Leach recommends being patient with your body, having flexible expectations for activity, and being open to changing things up. “It takes time to build up endurance. We’ll have patients who ran half marathons and are now walking on a treadmill. Cancer flips your world upside down—your clothes may feel different; your body may feel different—you’re allowed to be frustrated. Even if you’re getting back to the same old routine, it can be a completely different process. But regaining a previous level of performance isn’t the measure of success in your fight against cancer. Be open to seeing things in a different way. Expand your understanding of what exercise is. You may find more satisfaction moving into a new workout type or activity.”

Leach coordinates the Wolfe Foundation Cancer Wellness Program at OhioHealth McConnell Heart Hospital, which is open to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, in or out of treatment, even if it’s been for a number of years. Participants in the eight-week program receive an individualized assessment and exercise prescription. Exercise sessions are Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with lifestyle education around issues like nutrition and lymphedema. Leach recommends anyone who has undergone cancer treatments ask their doctors about the programs available to them. “Sometimes it’s helpful to be around people who are going through or have gone through what you’re experiencing. We help each other out.”

Curious about our cancer programs? Learn more here.