Tips for Exercising After a Cancer Diagnosis

Jun. 16, 2016

Couple walking for exerciseCancer survivors can benefit in many ways by increasing their physical activity through regular exercise, according to a number of clinical studies.

Cancer and its treatments may impact several areas of the body including the heart, lungs, muscles, bones and immune system. Body fat often increases and lean muscle tissue decreases. In addition, patients and survivors may experience side effects like nausea, fatigue, pain, depression and other problems that decrease quality of life. Exercise can help with these side effects.

Karen Mustian. Ph.D., M.P.H; Michelle Porto, an ACSM registered clinical exercise physiologist; and postdoctoral associate Po-Ju Lin, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., from the University of Rochester Medical Center’s PEAK Lab provide a roadmap for getting started.

Know Where You Are

Everyone starts off at a different stage, and understanding your current physical fitness level is important to developing a safe and effective exercise program. It’s helpful to know your:

  • Cardiopulmonary function through a walk test or a graded exercise stress test.
  • Muscular strength and endurance by taking a hand grip test, maximal weight lifting test, push-up test or curl-up test.
  • Bone density measured by imaging scans.
  • Muscle, tendon and ligament flexibility measured by a range of motion test.
  • Brain function evaluated by imaging scans or computer tests of cognitive function.
  • Neurological function through a balance test.
  • Immune function evaluated using blood tests.
  • Body composition measured by a skinfold test, a bioelectrical impedance test or other method.
  • Mental health tested through simple, easy-to-complete questionnaires.
  • Current physical activity level determined by daily steps or minutes spent in sedentary, light, moderate and vigorous physical activity.

Once you know this information, you can set appropriate goals and to develop an exercise program to achieve the outcomes you want.

Set SMART Goals

Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (SMART).

  • Be Specific: Your exercise program should be individually tailored to meet your needs, whether it’s to decrease your nausea, improve cardiopulmonary health and overall quality of life, or something else altogether.
  • Be Measurable: Use a pedometer or other wearable device to track your daily steps, exercise, caloric expenditure and sleep. Measure the specific outcomes you want to change using one of these or other methods on a regular basis and chart your progress.
  • Be Achievable: Beginning, restarting or continuing an exercise program from where you left off before diagnosis can be difficult. Start with low levels and progress slowly. Remember that rest is important, too.
  • Be Realistic: Goals should factor in how much time you can commit and where you plan to exercise, such as neighborhood walks, yoga or tai chi, community events like the Wilmot Warrior Walk, or one-on-one personal training. It is also important to assess what your barriers to exercising might be and to create plans to avoid these barriers or manage them in a way that will help you achieve your goals. 
  • Be Timely: Have a plan to evaluate your progress by repeating your measurements on a regular basis and know that your goals may need to change from time to time.

Seek Expert Assistance

You’ll get the most out of exercise with advice from a certified exercise professional. The ReNEW Cancer Survivorship Program at the Wilmot Cancer Institute is a research-based, personalized, one-on-one, exercise program. It provides appropriate testing and individualized exercise prescriptions with certified cancer exercise trainers. The team supports patients and survivors by helping them identify barriers and create plans to manage them so they can safely exercise at any point during their cancer journey. They also provide follow-up testing and community referrals to exercise programs at Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Pluta Cancer Center and the YMCA Livestrong Program. The staff works closely with oncologists and other medical professionals to prescribe exercise in a safe, effective manner that takes into account your unique needs as a cancer patient and survivor.

For additional information on ReNEW or other cancer programs that involve exercise, contact the PEAK Lab at (585) 273-3148.