When it comes to exercise, it can be difficult to know where to start at the best of times. Barriers like finding the time and motivation can make forming habits and routine tricky.
During or after cancer treatment, in addition to the above barriers, you may also be experiencing one or multiple side effects that make staying active really difficult. Fatigue, breathlessness and pain are the most common side effects, but with the right advice and support they can be managed and overcome.
Where to start
When increasing your activity during or after treatment, the best place to start is by thinking about yourself as an individual; consider your existing likes and dislikes, any existing hobbies or habits, etc. You get the idea! It may help to write these down in a journal. It is important to be honest with yourself - this is not about writing down what you ‘should’ be doing, it is about finding your current baseline and working from there! No judgement.
How to choose your goals
Next, it can be useful to start writing down some goals. Goals are so important because they help keep us focused, particularly during difficult times. Your goals may be really big or really small - the only thing that matters is that they are yours. If you have chosen big goals only, you can break these down into smaller goals.
For example, you may have a functional goal to be able to return to office work, then your smaller goals may be:
1) to be able to manage walking up and down stairs comfortably
2) to be able to sit comfortably in a chair for up to 2 hours at a time
3) to be able to sit-to-stand from a chair comfortably
4) to be able to drive for 20 minutes comfortably.
Alternatively, you may have a fitness goal to be able to run 5k. You will again need to break this down into small achievable goals, to pave the way:
1) to be able to walk 3k comfortable
2) to be able to walk 5k comfortable
3) to be able to intermittently walk/run for 3k
4) to be able to intermittently walk/run for 5k
You may want to write down these goals somewhere you can see them, for example on post-its on your fridge or mirror that you see each morning, or maybe as your phone background so you see it regularly. Out of sight, out of mind is true when it comes to goal setting - accountability is key!
Choosing the best activities
Once you have done this, it can be helpful to look at what you’ve written and see if any of your existing hobbies and habits will help work towards your goals. If you identify any gaps, this is where you can think about any new exercises that may help achieve your goals. For example, yoga may help with any goals that require improved flexibility or balance, or distance walking may help with goals that require stamina.
You may also want to choose a form of exercise or activity that you can manage on the days where your symptoms, such as fatigue or breathlessness, are worse. This will ensure you have a Plan B to feel prepared and keep consistent. For example, supine pilates exercises on your bed or getting outside for a gentle walk may be the best options for you on these days.
Once you have your goals and your activities, the idea is to start small, stay consistent and build from there. Do not rush yourself and remember that any activity is better than none. My favourite saying goes “I may be slow, but I’m lapping everyone on the sofa!”.
If you feel unsure or overwhelmed, please be sure to reach out to a professional for support, such as your oncology team, Sarah (Get Me Back) or myself (StrongerThan Physiotherapy). Our mission is to support people with cancer to improve their quality of life and achieve the best possible treatment outcomes. No goal is too big or too small so please do share your own goals so we can support you in achieving them.
Good luck, you can do it!