I am most frequently contacted by women who have come to the end of their treatment when they’re feeling ready to take back control of their bodies and regain their strength and fitness. More and more women are proactively taking control earlier too, even before their treatment starts. Many, including myself, use exercise to help feel like themselves again, to take them away from hospital walls, as well as to reduce ongoing treatment side-effects.
But where do you start? Have you thought about what exactly it is you want to achieve? Having an exercise goal might not be the first thing on your mind, but it can help you focus. Exercise after a cancer diagnosis is not only important for the physical benefits, but it can also have a profound impact on your mental and emotional well-being.
What are the benefits of exercise goals after a cancer diagnosis?
No matter where you are on your cancer journey, physical activity can help you:
Recover after surgery. If you’re feeling weaker or have experienced some muscle loss or mobility limitations as a result of surgery, strength and resistance training can help you regain muscle mass, and cardiovascular exercise will help build your energy. If you’re preparing for surgery, getting as cardiovascularly fit as you can beforehand will significantly help with your recovery.
Reduce fatigue and increase energy. Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most reported side effects of treatment, especially for those who have been through chemo and radiotherapy. Making a goal of sticking to a daily 20-minute walk can be a great place to start. Even if you don’t feel like going out, it will help maintain your energy levels.
Regain strength and range of motion. Surgery and radiotherapy can affect the range of motion in affected areas of the body. This can cause limitations to your mobility which can ultimately impact everyday living. So setting a goal to improve the range of motion and strength in this affected area will help with your recovery.
Reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and other diseases. Some people stay at a low level of activity because of chemo, radiation or hormone therapy, but being inactive can lead to other diseases and risk factors, like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Research has shown that regular moderate exercise (as recommended by the WHO(1)) decreased the risk of recurrence by 40 to 50% in breast cancer patients (2).
Improve your mental health. There is strong evidence that exercise helps improve anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue and health-related quality of life, which affects physical, psychological, and social functioning in your day-to-day life.
So whatever stage you’re at, having an exercise goal will give you something to work towards or focus on. They provide you with a sense of purpose and structure to your fitness and cancer journey.
Why should I take this approach to fitness after cancer?
When you have a clear plan in place, you can prioritise your exercise and ensure you are working effectively towards what you want to achieve . It may sound obvious, but when you 're already struggling for energy, this approach allows you to optimise your time and effort, making every workout count.
Our membership is designed in a way that allows variety, progression but also appropriate time for active rest and recovery using stretch and yoga to support this. It also allows you to focus on different aspects of fitness, such as strength, endurance, and flexibility, giving you a well-rounded fitness routine, supporting good recovery.
Knowing what you are working towards longer term helps you adapt and make changes as needed. You can set short-term and long-term milestones, adjust your goals based on how you feel and what stage of recovery you’re at, and challenge yourself when you feel more able.
Where do I start?
Assessing your current fitness level, or a baseline starting point is an essential step in creating an effective exercise plan. It allows you to understand where you currently stand and helps you set realistic goals. As a GMB member, we have created a benchmark strength workout where you can record your effort, weight lifted and how it felt. Equally, if mobility is your goal there are examples of mobility exercises you can do to measure change.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you tailor your workouts to target specific areas. For example, if you find that your cardiovascular endurance is low, you can focus on incorporating more aerobic exercise, such as walking, running or cycling into your routine. If you lack muscular strength, you can prioritise strength and resistance training.
Regularly reassessing your fitness level, mobility or strength will help to track progress and adjust your goals accordingly. As you improve, you can set new milestones and challenge yourself further. Remember, fitness is a journey, and continuously assessing and adapting your goals will keep you motivated and on track during your recovery.
How should I set realistic and measurable goals?
Setting attainable goals is essential for maintaining motivation and achieving long-term success and will keep you motivated.
When setting your exercise goals, it's important to be specific. Instead of saying, "I want to get fit," try setting a goal like, "I want to be able to run a 5k without stopping within the next three months." By being specific, you can create a clear roadmap to follow and track your progress along the way.
In addition to being specific, your goals should also be measurable. This means breaking them down into smaller, achievable milestones. For example, if your ultimate goal is to complete 10 reps of a squat with 10kg, set smaller monthly or weekly goals to keep yourself motivated and on track.
Remember, setting exercise goals is a strategic approach to achieving a longer term outcome. With realistic and measurable goals in place, you'll be able to stay focused, track your progress, and make adjustments along the way to ensure continued success.
What should I include in my action plan?
Your personalised plan should include steps that will help you work towards your end goal. My goal, for example, is to run 5k in under 30 minutes, but in order to achieve that I need to include elements of strength, speed, agility and flexibility in my plan.
Start by considering what types of exercises you enjoy. It could be anything from running, swimming, weightlifting, or practising yoga. By incorporating activities that you genuinely enjoy, you are more likely to stick with the plan and stay motivated.
Next, determine how often you can realistically commit to exercising. It's important to strike a balance between challenging yourself and avoiding burnout. Start with a manageable frequency, such as two to three days a week, and gradually increase as your fitness level improves.
Don't forget to consider your current lifestyle and any physical limitations you may have. If you have ongoing treatment every few weeks or injuries, bear that in mind when planning your time or activity, and always consult the relevant practitioner or doctor if you need extra support and to ensure your exercise plan is safe and effective.
Remember, your personalised exercise plan should be tailored to your individual needs and goals. By developing a plan that aligns with your preferences and capabilities, you are setting yourself up for long-term success on your journey.
How do I monitor my progress?
Once you have developed your exercise plan and started working through it, it's important to regularly monitor your progress. Monitoring your progress allows you to track your achievements and identify areas that may need adjustments. One effective way to do this is by keeping a workout journal or using a fitness tracking app on your phone. This will help you keep track of the exercises you've done, how many repetitions or sets you've completed, and the weight or intensity of each exercise.
Based on your progress, you can make necessary adjustments to your exercise plan. This may include increasing the duration or intensity of certain exercises, trying new exercises to challenge yourself, or adding more rest days if needed. Remember, progress is not always linear, especially after cancer and it's normal to encounter setbacks or plateaus. Stay motivated, stay consistent, and you will achieve your goals.
How can I stay motivated?
Once you start making progress towards your exercise goals, it's important to take a moment to celebrate your achievements. Whether it's reaching a strength milestone, running a certain distance without stopping, or simply feeling stronger and healthier, every little success deserves recognition. Treat yourself to a small reward, like a new workout outfit or a special day out. Acknowledging your accomplishments will not only boost your mood but also keep you motivated to continue working towards your goals. Remind yourself why you started this fitness journey in the first place and visualise how achieving your goals will improve your overall well-being.
In addition to celebrating achievements and finding internal motivation, it can also be helpful to establish a support system. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share your fitness goals. Whether it's a workout buddy, a supportive friend, or using our online community, having someone to cheer you on and hold you accountable can make a significant difference in staying on track.
How can I make exercise a long-term commitment?
Celebrating achievements and finding internal motivation are crucial steps in this journey. However, it's important to remember that setting exercise goals is not a one-time event but an ongoing commitment.
As you continue on your fitness journey and recovery, it's important to periodically reassess and adjust your goals. Your body and circumstances will change over time, and it's essential to adapt your goals accordingly. Additionally, consistency is key. Even on days when you don't feel like it or face challenges, sticking as much as you can to your exercise routine will ultimately lead to continued progress. Even if it's just getting outside for a daily walk.
Keep challenging yourself, stay focused, and remember that every step forward, no matter how small, is a step towards achieving success for you.